Ensuring Students Have Access to Healthy Meals

One of the most crucial elements for ensuring that students are able to succeed in life and achieve their dreams is a quality education.  The ability of students to excel academically is influenced by caring teachers, involved parents, and modern educational resources, and our students’ ability to learn is also affected by whether or not they have the proper nutrition.
 
Each school day, more than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program, and more than 12 million students are served school breakfast.  The food served to these children has a demonstrable effect on their health and well-being.  Healthy and nutritious food increases students’ ability to focus on their studies and improves their long-term health.
 
Nationwide, schools are working to serve healthier meals, but they must have the right tools in order to do so.  Unfortunately, many schools, particularly those that were built decades ago, lack the infrastructure necessary to prepare meals that are rich in fresh ingredients and must rely on workarounds that are expensive, inefficient, and unsustainable.  In Maine, 99 percent of school districts need at least one piece of equipment, and nearly half of school districts need kitchen infrastructure upgrades, including more physical space, electrical capacity, and plumbing capacity.  It is estimated that, overall, Maine schools would need more than $58 million to make necessary upgrades, which far exceeds the $112,000 in grants that the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Maine during the last two fiscal years for new equipment. 

To help solve this problem, I joined my colleague Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in introducing the School Food Modernization Act.  Under our bipartisan legislation, school administrators or other eligible borrowers could obtain federal guarantees for 80 percent of the loan value needed to construct, remodel, or expand school kitchens, dining, or food storage infrastructure.  Targeted grant assistance would help give school administrators and food service directors the funding needed to upgrade kitchen infrastructure or purchase kitchen equipment such as commercial ovens, steamers, and stoves.  The bill would also strengthen training and technical assistance to help school food service personnel meet nutrition standards.
 
The School Food Modernization Act has been endorsed by numerous organizations, including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the National PTA, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, among others.  Recently, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed our legislation as part of the five-year reauthorization of child nutrition programs.  This legislation, the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016, must now be considered by the full Senate.
 
I am very pleased that our bill to help assist schools in providing healthier meals to students throughout the country advanced in the Senate.  The School Food Modernization Act will have a lasting, positive impact on students’ health as well as their academic success.  I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that this bipartisan legislation becomes law.