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Sonny Perdue: ‘Don’t think we’ll see block grants’ in child nutrition

The USDA secretary also said he hasn’t heard anything about child nutrition reauthorization lately, but hopes it can be accomplished this year.

Yesterday, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue spoke to a crowd of food retailers at the National Grocers Association in Las Vegas. After his remarks, Perdue spoke with Food Management on the status of child nutrition reauthorization. 

FM: Have you heard anything about the status of child nutrition reauthorization? 

SP: We have not. We probably need to inquire. [Congress] has had their hands full with other topics, as you know. There had been some conversation early when I got [to the USDA] but it’s fallen off. I haven’t heard anything really about it in the last few weeks or months, really. It does need to be done. 

FM: What would you like to see in next CNR? 

SP: As you know, we did our waivers on the milk and took a hiatus on the sodium and the whole grain. I know members of Congress are anxious to put the dairy issue in statute because all we could do was suspend that, and the [school] systems still have to go through the pain of the waiver process and applying for that. Dairy has made a comeback in health news to some degree, and I think people want to acknowledge that.

Again, I’m hoping [school nutrition decision] can be made on sound nutrition science and not political science. And I fear that sometimes we’ve made some ideological decisions that we claim to be nutritional decisions that are not necessarily in the best nutritious [interest] of children. I think the whole grain issue there. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a pasta that is whole grain, but school nutrition professionals tell me it’s very difficult to make tasty, whole-grain pasta and pizza that way. And we literally were seeing from a data perspective that things were going in the trashcan. Waste went up and utilization went down. 

What we’re trying to do is approach it from the [perspective of] school nutrition professionals who have spent a career both educational, academic and professionally understanding how to feed kids. Their goals are not to feed them junk, but to feed them things they will actually eat. And I’m hoping that we’ll make more progress in that.

FM: Do you think block grants as the last House proposal included will come to be? 

SP: There were probably a lot of conversations about block grants, and I don’t know that any of those will come to fruition over that. I think Congress as whole, primarily Democrats but even Republicans as well, don’t have the greatest trust on block grants in these kinds of programs. They like specificity. As a governor, I used to argue for the fact that I would take a certain percentage cut of the money [from a block grant] and not just [use it for] nutrition but in workforce training and many other things if they would let us use it where it was most effective. Congress has this feeling that they appropriate the money and they can tell us how to spend it. So I don’t know that we’ll see block grants. 

FM: In the past year as secretary what have you learned about school nutrition? 

SP: I spoke to about 7,000 school nutrition professionals in Atlanta early on back last summer, and I have a high opinion of what they do. I think we’ve handcuffed them so much [on the budget], they’ve got a terrible job trying to manage all the parameters that we’ve given them in the budget and in procurement and those kinds of things. I have a good friend who’s a school nutrition head professional there in our county schools and she just tells me horror stories about sitting in front of her computer at her school and almost doing algorithms just to get it to work. 

What I think we ought to do is free them. When I was in school, we had good, tasty meals and there weren’t so many rules and regulations there. I think we ought to trust these school nutrition professionals without being so prescriptive. We can be outcome-based and we can set the outcomes and the goals that we want. Childhood obesity is absolutely an issue [of] which we’ve got to be concerned. I, frankly, think that has as much to do with lack of activity as it does what they’re consuming. What we’ve found anecdotally is that these kids are [taking] the prescription of sodium, whole grain and skim milk, [but] they were throwing that in the trashcan and stopping at the convenience store or fast food on the way home. And that doesn’t help anybody. 

I’m hoping we can move that. In working with the school lunch professionals, I think we can make some progress. I think Congress is acknowledging that, again, the ideological battle, I think, for the most part came because it was Mrs. Obama’s primary focus. But I think if you go ask the kids and the school lunch professionals they feel like they’ve got a little more flexibility to do what they’ve got to do than they had. 

FM: Do you think we’ll see CNR pass this year? 

SP: I can’t tell you. I think it ought to come up this year, but I can’t tell you. It’s already three years behind from the reauthorization standpoint. Maybe the farm bill, if we can get that out of the way on time, as the plan is, maybe we can deal with that or deal with it at the same time. That has a lot of parallel; they have a lot to do with one and other. I hope we can.

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