VERMONT — Local administrators are welcoming a move by Gov. Peter Shumlin’s campaign to free up federal funding for fresh, local foods in schools by allowing states to receive cash vouchers from the USDA instead of commodity food.
Laura Collaro, foodservice manager for the Lincoln Community School, said the choices coming from the USDA include many processed foods and things that aren’t necessarily the healthy options for children, including peanut butter with hydrogenated oils and sugar.
“The things they offer are not always the healthiest choices,” she said.
Although USDA options are starting to get better — she can now receive whole wheat pasta through the program — Collaro has a freezer full of excess commodity foods that she couldn’t finish up last year.
She uses USDA commodities to supplement other foods in order to run the Lincoln school lunch program in a financially sound manner. But Collaro said rerouting that funding in a way that would allow it to be used for local foods instead would be beneficial to her program.
“I’m buying all this local produce anyway,” she said. “It would save a huge amount of money.”
Shumlin presented the plan at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association last month.
“Currently the federal government sends states surplus food for school and other nutrition programs,” he said in a press release announcing the plan. “We will ask for direct funding, possibly through vouchers, to enable the folks in each state who are dealing directly with programs for children to buy locally and choose the most nutritious food products that make the most sense for children in their programs.”
Alex MacLean, secretary of civil and military affairs in the Shumlin administration, said the plan was well received at the National Governors Association meeting.
Now, the Education, Workforce and Early Childhood Committee of the NGA — on which Shumlin serves — will decide whether or not to endorse the plan for all states. If endorsed, governors would reach out to the USDA and other members of the federal government to propose the plan on a nationwide scale.
MacLean said Kansas already has a voucher system similar to the one proposed. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has also attempted to push through legislation to trade the commodity foodservice for cash vouchers in Congress, though he was unsuccessful.
Shumlin said that giving schools and states more local control over what children are eating is important for addressing childhood hunger and obesity issues.
“This is an important part of our health care reform effort,” he said. “Keeping people fed is critical to keeping people healthy, and keeping people healthy is vital in bringing down health care costs in the state and across the nation.”
Schools across the country receive a certain amount of cash funding from the federal government to bolster their foodservice programs, and states receive food free of charge through a joint program of the USDA, which provides commodity items, and the Department of Defense, which provides fresh produce. The food is then distributed to foodservice programs in schools across the state.
Holly Peake, Vermont’s donated food coordinator in the Department of Children and Families in Waterbury, said a workgroup selects foods to order depending on requests from schools. The commodities schools receive include everything from all-purpose flour to ground beef to peanut butter to pasta.
According to Shumlin’s office, 20 percent of the food that the USDA distributes to schools is surplus commodities that the government purchases in order to regulate food prices; 80 percent is based on requests from schools in the state.
Lincoln’s Collaro pointed out that the USDA money in question currently is spent all over the United States, but instead it would be routed through local agricultural businesses.
Changing the way USDA distributes food and money will take some time, and Shumlin’s plan is still evolving.
“It’s too early for a timeline,” said MacLean.
Shumlin said school administrators know what their students need — and what is available in state — far better than a department of the federal government could.
“This plan puts schools and the state in charge of the food being offered and served to our children,” he said “The federal system is out of touch with child nutrition needs.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.