( Florida Department of Agriculture )

In language that supporters hope is included in the next Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, new legislation aims to make it easier for school foodservice directors to buy local food for student meals.

The Kids Eat Local Act (H.R. 3220, S. 1817) was introduced in mid-June by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, Josh Harder, D-Calif., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.

Current law does not allow schools to explicitly require “local” or “regional” as a product specification in a food procurement request, according to a news release. While schools can express their preference for locally produced foods with a “geographic preference option,” many school foodservice providers have found the geographic preference option confusing to implement, according to the release.

The new legislation would allow schools to specify “locally grown,” “locally raised” or “locally caught” in their procurement language, and then award the contract to the lowest bidder who can meet that specification.

The legislation is endorsed by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the National Farm to School Network and others, said Anna Mullen, communications manager for the National Farm to School Network. 

“The reason is so really exciting is because it’s directly in response to the needs of schools that we’ve been hearing for years — that schools are eager and ready to put more food on school meal trays (but) sometimes that the process of procuring that local food can be a bit of a challenge,” she said June 18.

The legislation will make it less of an administrative burden in finding local food suppliers, Mullen said, and increase opportunities for local growers at the same time. “It’s a sort of multi stakeholder approach to saying this is a win for schools and for kids when they get more local food on their plate ... and more farmers will benefit,” she said.

Mollie Van Lieu, senior director of nutrition policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, said the legislation appears to be a step in the right direction.

“Much like the rest of the foodservice world, there’s an increasing demand for local in schools, so providing them the tools they need to write bids is important,” Van Lieu said in an e-mail.”Coming out of our School Foodservice Forum at last week’s United Fresh convention, what we heard loud and clear was the importance of a school foodservice director establishing a collaborative relationship with their produce distributor to ensure that schools have access to the high quality fresh produce they want at the price they need, including local when available.” 

Mullen said there is bipartisan support for the bill in the House and the Senate.

“We feel really optimistic about it, and we think that it really addresses the need the schools have been asking for — and there’s no better time to address that than with child nutrition reauthorization coming up.”

She said the legislation doesn’t require school officials to indicate a preference for local food, but only gives them the flexibility to do so. At the same time, she said schools can create their own definition of what “local” is; the bill does not attempt to define any parameters.

“There’s no rule here that says local equals 100 miles, It is something for school to decide what the definition of local is,” she said.

Congressional discussions on Child Nutrition Act reauthorization are taking place this year. While the legislation is meant to be reauthorized every five years, lawmakers could not agree on a package in 2016.

The last Child Nutrition Reauthorization was the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.


 

 
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