Insights by Goldie: Making progress: Child nutrition, Farm to School and food irradiation

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in October 2004

This election season has numbed us, with the most rancorous and divisive campaign in our lifetime. Many issues are polarized, both international and domestic. But thankfully, some important issues have policy-makers actually beginning to cooperate and bring welcome agreement to the national stage and closer to home.

Support for child nutrition programs
I am so pleased to be able to report that this summer both the U.S. House and Senate passed identical versions of the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act. This signaled strong bipartisan support for the nutritional health of our country’s children. The bill has since been signed into law.

This legislation includes the Farm to Cafeteria authorization, in Section 122, subtitled “Access to Local Foods and School Gardens.” The authorizing language is based on the Farm to Cafeteria Projects Act but, in addition, includes wording that school gardens shall be established. It mandates creation of a “seed grant” fund to cover start-up costs for Farm to Cafeteria projects in schools — to buy equipment, arrange nutrition education and establish school gardens. This is a very progressive, forward-thinking, exciting development. But, of course, there is a catch.

As with all grand visions and plans, money must be appropriated to pay for the program. If that does not happen, this extraordinary opportunity could disappear, becoming one of the unfunded mandates that result from many congressional acts. Competing budgetary needs in this money-tight nation will be fierce now, but this is too important an opportunity to let that happen.

We urge you to drop a letter, post-card, fax or make a few phone calls. It is very important to contact both Sens. Cantwell and Murray. Thank your representative and the senators for passing the legislation and express how important you feel it is that they authorize funding for Section 122, the “Access to Local Foods and School Gardens” at a figure of $10 million, the figure advised to ask for, according to the Community Food Security Coalition and others who have been working on the issue all along.

National WIC program
The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) portion of the Child Nutrition Act is also very important, and also much in need of support to assure that it receives sufficient funds. Across the nation, WIC provides services to more than 7.64 million very low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant and nursing women, infants and children to age 5.

It has been cited as one of the most effective of all such government programs. WIC supplies supplemental foods high in nutritional value to low-income families. WIC’s program has helped reduce low birth weights, child anemia and infant mortality, and has reduced Medicaid costs. It also teaches nutritional awareness in this most vulnerable group.

When you write to your congress members regarding the Farm to Cafeteria program, include a second request: Ask them to also be sure to provide $5.112 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for WIC in 2005. Ask also that they replenish the WIC Contingency Fund with at least $125 million.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Washington state WIC is serving more than 162,000 women and children in 2004 — 10,000 more than in 2003. It is all too easy to forget that Washington ranks fourth highest in rate of hunger in the nation; it also has one of the highest costs of living in the nation. This makes WIC very important for our State.

A beef with irradiated beef
In February, I wrote in the Sound Consumer that this year the USDA made irradiated beef eligible to be served in the nation’s schools, as part of the National School Lunch Program, which is heavily subsidized by the USDA. (see What’s the beef? Public schools may now serve irradiated meat, Sound Consumer, February 2004)

I’m pleased to report that as one other aspect of the Child Nutrition Act, Congress clarified the issue of irradiated food and school lunches. Language was included stating that irradiated beef, or other irradiated foods, could be served in school lunches only at the specific request of state and local authorities, and with notice to the parents and citizens. The USDA cannot mandate the purchase of irradiated foods for school lunches, nor can the federal government subsidize the higher cost of irradiated foods.

Twenty school districts across the country, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco, already have preemptively banned irradiated foods from school lunches. Of more than 5,000 public comments received by the USDA, 93 percent opposed making irradiated beef available.

Seattle School District nixes junk foods
In early September, the Seattle School Board unanimously approved a set of nutrition-related policies designed to improve students’ nutrition. Sales of all foods and beverages containing high levels of sugars and fats are now banned. All foods and beverages sold and distributed during the school day must meet specific nutrition guidelines and follow certain portion sizes. This took effect immediately with the beginning of school in September 2004, in all elementary and middle schools, and will become policy on February 1, 2005, at all high schools.

Notably, the long-controversial “pouring rights” contracts, which have drawn intense scrutiny in schools, will be prohibited in all Seattle public schools when the current Coca-Cola contract expires in about a year. Meanwhile, water and substitute beverages that meet the guidelines could be sold until the contract expires.

Organic and local foods for schools
The Seattle School Board policies direct the school meal program to offer fresh, local, organic, non-genetically-modified, non-irradiated, unprocessed foods whenever feasible! This makes the policy one of the strongest in the nation.

Hats off to the Seattle School Board, particularly to Brita Butler-Wall, vice president of the board and chair of the Nutrition Committee. And a very special thanks to Shelley Curtis, nutrition director for the non-profit advocacy group, Children’s Alliance, who leads more than 60 health experts and community members in gathering sound research to support the board’s actions.

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