The new secretary of USDA has hit the ground running following his confirmation last week. Sonny Perdue joined with the Secretary of Commerce to persuade President Trump not to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He visited USDA in Kansas City and held a town hall meeting with farmers there.
Monday, he announced an effort to “Make School Meals Great Again,” moving to restore local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk. And Perdue did Q&A on Google Hangouts with FFA members across the country. The first question came from an Indiana student.
“My name is Calista and I’m from the Greenfield Central FFA chapter,” she said. She then asked where the new USDA chief thinks the future of agriculture is headed.
“I am excited about the possibilities of American agriculture,” he said, “and the very fact of the technology changes that we’ve seen over the last 50-75 years. When we look at all the things it’s involved in, not only from food and fiber but from energy production, pharmaceuticals and other things, there’s an exciting future out there. I’m glad that members of the FFA are learning about all the career opportunities. I hope you’ll continue to pursue a science-based, technology-based or business-based education.”
Perdue was at the CS Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg, Virginia and the Hangout and YouTube live event was moderated from the National FFA Center in Indianapolis. The secretary was also asked about the biggest problem in agribusiness. Farmers won’t disagree with his response.
“Obviously, the biggest problem is sustained profitability, and that’s where USDA comes in in large part, and that’s where the farm bill comes in. We’ve got a safety net. We know that across the country our grain prices are lower, cattle prices are lower, and you’re really below break-even prices in some places. But that’s what agriculture is all about,” Perdue went on. “We’ve existed that way for many, many years over the cyclical nature of pricing, and one of my goals would be to even that out where our farmers and producers, we could remove the obstacles where they could have a consistent, profitable situation.”
Perdue said his role is to go around the world and sell the products that U.S. farmers produce, right now in great abundance. He told FFA members that they can be important voices telling the story of U.S. agriculture.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Monday announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs in order to make food choices both healthful and appealing to students. Perdue made the announcement during a visit to Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia to mark School Nutrition Employee Week. Perdue signed a proclamation which begins the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk. Perdue was joined by Sen. Pat Roberts (KS), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association.
“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”
“I commend Secretary Perdue for taking this important step,” said Montague. “We have been wanting flexibility so that schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable. We don’t want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away. Some of our schools are actually using that food waste as compost. That shouldn’t be happening.”
Schools have been facing increasing fiscal burdens as they attempt to adhere to existing, stringent nutrition requirements. According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2015. At the same time costs are going up, most states are reporting that they’ve seen a decrease in student participation in school lunches, as nation-wide about one million students choose not to have a school lunch each day. This impacts schools in two ways: The decline in school lunch participation means reduced revenue to schools while they simultaneously are encountering increased costs.
“I was talking to some folks in Washington about this, and they said that the current program is working. ‘How do you know?’ I asked. They said it’s because 99 percent of schools are at least partially compliant. Well, only in Washington can that be considered proof that the system is working as it was intended,” Perdue said. “A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn’t make any sense.”
The specific flexibilities are:
- Whole grains:
o Schools are experiencing challenges in finding the full range of products they need and that their students enjoy in whole grain-rich form. They need continued flexibility in meeting the whole grain requirements for school meals.
o USDA will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich for School Year 2017-2018. USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
o For School Years 2017-2018 through 2020, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 will be considered compliant.
o The time frame will provide schools and the school nutrition industry with the certainty and predictability they need to make appropriate plans for creating foods with the appropriate amount of sodium. During this period, USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
o USDA will dedicate significant resources to providing technical assistance to schools as they continue to develop menus that are low in sodium and appealing to students.
o Milk is a key component of school meals, meaning schools must have more options for students who select milk as part of their lunch or breakfast.
o Perdue will direct USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk through the school meals programs. USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.
“I’ve got 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn’t think it was good, healthful, and the right thing to do,” Perdue said. “And here’s the thing about local control: it means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today. These are not mandates on schools.”
Perdue lauded the efforts of the nation’s food service staff in serving healthful, appealing meals and underscored USDA’s commitment to help them overcome any remaining challenges they face in meeting the nutrition standards.
“The hard work and dedication of the people who prepare nutritious meals for our children should serve as an example to all, and we will continue to support them,” Perdue said. “We also have a responsibility to our shareholders and our customers – the American taxpayers – to provide our school children with healthful and nutritious meals in the most efficient and cost effective way possible.”