Weekly Columns

Ensuring students have access to healthy, nutritious meals at school is a constant challenge in ordinary times. In an era of COVID-19, that challenge could easily seem insurmountable.

Our school nutrition professionals refused to back down to the pandemic. They deserve a thank you for all the incredible work they have done over the past year, and continue doing today. Their creativity, tenacity and commitment have ensured children in need have access to healthy food even with the extra difficulties brought on by COVID-19. 

There are numerous stories, from schools across the country, of dedicated professionals going above and beyond to get nutritious meals to kids attending school, participating in remote learning or, in many cases, a mix of both. One story from our own backyard really puts the challenge in perspective

In the midst of the pandemic, KATV profiled the team at Mayflower Elementary School, highlighting its efforts to meet the needs of students in these unprecedented times by taking extra care and attention to package each individual meal and deliver them to classrooms where most students eat lunch at their desks. 

Then there’s the issue of feeding students who are participating remotely, a problem solved by packing up hundreds of meals for pick-up once a week. Every bag includes breakfast and lunch for each school day.

This process has been replicated in a similar manner across Arkansas and the country. As we begin working on a bipartisan bill to reauthorize our child nutrition programs, it’s critical that we listen to those who operate these programs to understand the lessons they have learned during the pandemic. 

As Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a co-chair of the Senate Hunger Caucus, it is a priority of mine to see a child nutrition reauthorization bill cross the finish line.

It has been over 10 years since Congress has reauthorized our child nutrition programs. Without a doubt, some of them need to be modernized. The summer meals program, in particular, needs to be updated as many of the rules date back to the 1960s and are simply unworkable. It is hamstrung by guidelines which dictate a one-size-fits-all solution that requires children to travel to a central location and eat their meals together.  

The pandemic has heightened the need for increased flexibility. All options—from off-site, grab-and-go models, to home delivery, to electronic benefits transfer—must be on the table.

Along with modernizing the programs themselves, we need to take a look at the federally-imposed meal pattern requirements. I continue to hear concerns from nutrition professionals, including the Arkansas School Nutrition Association, that the increasingly restrictive requirements for milk, sodium and whole grains are unworkable. 

As schools face financial strains and a pandemic, the last thing we should add to their burdens is a mandate to implement strict meal pattern requirements for which products are not available. This is a concern that needs to be addressed in the short term, but it is equally important to find a long-term solution to give schools certainty. 

School nutrition professionals feed kids healthy, nutritious meals each school day. I trust them to know their students and what will work in their schools. We should follow their guidance as we move forward to draft a bipartisan bill to reauthorize our child nutrition programs.