November policy update


On November 2, FOCUS staff were delighted to be joined via conference call by Laura Walter, Program Support Branch Chief, Food Distribution, USDA Foods, and Matt Russell, Agriculture Marketing Specialist from USDA Agriculture Marketing Service, who is also a member of the USDA Farm to School Team. The purpose of the meeting was to identify next steps on current and future arenas of collaboration on a number of fronts, including:

  • A FOCUS-led educational project to help stakeholders better understand all aspects of USDA Foods
  • Ensuring USDA receives FOCUS stakeholder input about the Fresh Produce pilots being developed for Michigan and Florida
  • Gathering model specifications and best practices from our stakeholders to help districts meet meal standards being developed in compliance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act
  • Ensuring the needs of school food systems are reflected in the study and development of regional food hubs
  • Helping school districts make the most of USDA Foods
  • Beginning to identify a wider circle of USDA staff whose work align with and could enhance FOCUS efforts

The call was positive and productive, and we look forward to reporting on progress as this work develops across several USDA mission areas (Food and Nutrition Services, Agricultural Marketing Service, and Rural Development). Stay tuned.

>> Farm Bill conversations continue

We know the Farm Bill is an important opportunity to develop policies that can help deliver affordable regional food to our nation’s schools. We also know this process could well be short-circuited this year. As reported previously, the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been working behind closed doors on a Farm Bill that would otherwise have been written through more typical legislative processes in the coming year. They hope the Supercommittee will roll this Farm Bill into the government-wide deficit reduction package for an up or down vote, with no amendments allowed, in the House and Senate in December.

The Agriculture Committees’ leadership had originally pledged to submit their proposal to the Supercommittee by November 1, but that deadline passed with no action. Time is now running out for anything to be submitted in time to be scored (with cost projections) by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and thus included in the Supercommittee’s proposal. Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote an article that sheds light on the workings behind what he and many others are calling the “Secret Farm Bill.” Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has written an excellent  blog post about the Supercommittee’s processes and what they could mean for federal agriculture policy in the next few years. The Community Food Security Coalition has issued a policy update and action alert with more detail.

How you can help: Some cities in states that have Supercommittee members are working on a common message to the Supercommittee in support of key Farm Bill programs for urban and rural areas. Contact Sheilah Davidson if you’d like to be involved in this work and live in one of the following states: AZ, CA, MA, MD, MI, MT, OH, PA, SC, TX, or WA.

>> Hope for local food support on the horizon

Meanwhile, members of Congress have introduced a number of “marker bills” containing provisions that supporters hope will be included in the Farm Bill. As noted in Mark Bittman’s article linked above, on November 1 the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act was introduced by sponsors Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

Many of the School Food FOCUS policy recommendations are incorporated in this bill, which aims to improve federal Farm Bill programs that support local and regional farm and food systems by addressing production, aggregation, processing, marketing, and distribution needs — all of which would help to get more regionally grown foods into our schools. The bill also includes provisions to address some of the institutional barriers that prevent schools and institutions from easily procuring regionally produced food.

More detail on the bill is available on the blog of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and a summary of the bill is here. Pingree also gave a press conference on the legislation, and many local food advocates participated in an advocacy day in support of the bill.

>> Is pizza a vegetable?

A November 15 article by AP notes that Congress wants pizza and french fries to stay on school lunch lines and is fighting the Obama administration’s efforts to take unhealthy foods out of schools.

The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year. These include limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line, putting new restrictions on sodium and boosting the use of whole grains. The legislation would block or delay all of those efforts.

House Republicans had urged USDA to rewrite the standards in a bill passed in June. The Senate last month voted to block the potato limits in its version, with opposition to the restrictions led by potato-growing states. Neither version of the bill included the latest provisions on tomato paste, sodium or whole grains; House and Senate negotiators added those in the last two weeks as they put finishing touches on the legislation.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Block the Agriculture Department from limiting starchy vegetables, including corn and peas, to two servings a week.
  • Allow USDA to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable, as it does now.
  • Require further study on long-term sodium reduction requirements set forth by the USDA guidelines.
  • Require USDA to define “whole grains” before they regulate them.

Both the House and the Senate are expected to vote on the bill this week and send it to President Barack Obama.

>> Thomas Forster takes FOCUS to Rome

In addition to his work as Policy Advisor to School Food FOCUS, Thomas Forster has been coordinating a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) position paper presented at a meeting associated with the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) conference in Rome. The position paper, Food, Agriculture and Cities: Challenges of food and nutrition security, agriculture and ecosystem management in an urbanizing world, was a joint project of the Food for Cities multi-disciplinary initiative. Thomas was one of the discussants during the Food for the Cities side event [PDF] at CFS on October 21. In the paper, FOCUS is cited as an example of an initiative bringing healthful food to cities. Thanks for all of your great work on this, Thomas!


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