Vilsack encounters resistance to school meal rule
By Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report
|EL SOBRANTE, Calif. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday visited a middle school here that has used just about every USDA program to update its school meals, but he still encountered skepticism about the proposed rule to bring school meals into alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by capping sugar, limiting sodium, and increasing the amount of whole grains served.|
After he toured the food facilities at the Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in Contra Costa County outside San Francisco, Vilsack participated in a news conference.
|Dylan Hatami, the food services coordinator for the school district, took part, and said “We fear that new regulations will push the neediest students away from the programs.”|
Hatami was referring to the view of some school nutrition leaders that reducing sugar and sodium and increasing whole grain requirements will make school meals unpalatable to some of the children who are the most dependent on them.
Hatami noted that his boss, Barbara Jellison, the director of food services for the West Contra Costa County School District, wasn’t able to greet Vilsack because she is in Washington attending the legislative conference of the School Nutrition Association, the organization of school food service directors and the companies that make school foods.
SNA has said the new rules are “unachievable for most schools nationwide,” and is urging both the Biden administration and Congress to maintain the current school nutrition standards.
Nutrition groups have said the rule will result in children eating healthier foods.
At the news conference, Vilsack noted that the rule is in the comment period, and said “I respect all positions.”
But he added that he doesn’t favor a delay in the implementation of the stricter standards because “we can’t take a step back in terms of our children’s health.
”Kids who would not get better meals if the new standards are not imposed soon would not get back the years when they could have been eating healthier food, he added.
Asked after the news conference what he thought about Vilsack’s statement, Hatami said, “At this time we are still doing research on the difficult proposals.”
The Betty Reid Soskin Middle School is a special place because it is named after the National Park Service ranger who retired at age 100. But as Vilsack toured the school he saw that it is following the standards under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that was promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, and is also using USDA programs to connect the school with local farmers.
Joining him on the tour were Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom who is known as the “first partner” of California.
Due to rain, Vilsack did not walk in the school garden, but officials explained that the two-acre plot behind the school is so large that it is classified as a farm.
Students work in the garden and sell food from it at a farmers market in the summer. One farmer working with the students told Vilsack that in addition to farming skills, the students are taught to be critical thinkers and entrepreneurs, but that he wonders whether they will be able to farm as adults.
California has passed universal free school meals, and Vilsack and Garamendi both credited Siebel Newsom with the legislature’s passage of that program.
Siebel Newsom said California is “nation-leading” on universal free school meals and that the meals are prepared with “care and cultural relevance.” She also said the Farm to School program has created links between the students and BIPOC farmers — those who are Black, indigenous and people of color.
Vilsack told Thurmond it was important to understand “the enormity” of what California has done because its schools buy more food than the chain restaurants in the state.
Vilsack concluded by saying that, while many people would the Declaration of Independence is a major reason the United States is a great nation, he believes the federal nutrition programs “are a fundamental reason we have a stable and secure democracy.”