Finding the money in California
Let’s do the numbers for one state: California. Its schools–which serve about 11 percent of school lunches nationwide–would need roughly $150 million a year to meet the proposed standards. Just buying more fruits and vegetables would cost about $75 million. That’s equal to the subsidies that went to just 200 California farming operations, mostly producing cotton, dairy and rice. Each collected an average of about $375,000 a year–a jaw-dropping sum.
Tough budget times call for serious fat-trimming. Why give scarce public funds to the state’s largest farm operators when a fraction of that subsidy money could improve our kids’ diets and help fruit and vegetable growers who provide jobs and $15 billion in annual economic value?
California’s upland cotton growers raked in $139 million in subsidies in 2008, yet generated slightly more than $100 million in sales that same year. No investor in her right mind would take that deal. Why do taxpayers put up with this kind of lose-lose proposition?
Short term fix: USDA should give schools more, fresher produce
The federal government can help schools in other ways. For example, USDA should significantly increase procurement of fresh fruits and vegetables under the Section 32 Program, established during the Depression to funnel cash to producers of commodities that did not qualify for agricultural subsidies–fruits, nuts, vegetables, meat and seafood. This program provides a little more than $1 billion a year for federal food purchases to be donated to school systems, day care centers and other nutrition services.
The 2002 and 2008 farm bills required USDA to spend at least $400 million of its Section 32 funding on fruit, vegetable and nuts. Under President Obama’s direction, the department could buy even more produce–and cut back on seafood and meat, particularly heavily processed, fatty items like chicken nuggets and fish sticks. The administration can do this without Congressional action.
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