Op-ed: Fix the School Supply Chain by Empowering Independent Family Farmers and Ranchers | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Fix the School Supply Chain by Empowering Independent Family Farmers and Ranchers

The pandemic-fueled school hunger crisis is far from over, but passing the Build Back Better plan can help schools and communities build more resiliency in the food system.

Elementary Students at Lunch break in School Cafeteria

Schools are the backbone of our efforts to end child hunger in this country. For many kids, they are the only place where they can reliably get a healthy, nutritious meal all day. My sisters are both public school teachers and they’ve told me time and again that healthy meals are just as important for students as a laptop or a textbook. I couldn’t agree more.

Sometimes, a lack of food can even result in developmental problems or learning disabilities. Other times, it prevents kids from concentrating. These problems can lead to under-education, which can have long-term effects, including a lifetime of low-paying jobs and even unemployment.

That’s why I’ve fought so hard to expand access to healthy school meals for students across America. I also strongly support the recently-extended Seamless Summer Option, which helps schools provide students with meals free of charge. Any disruption to these important programs can cause a domino effect for our kids—not just for a single day, but possibly throughout their whole lives.

We saw this on a massive scale during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research released earlier this year by UNICEF found that school closures around the world led to more than 39 billion missed in-school meals. One stat in particular puts this staggering number in context: since the pandemic first led to school closures, 370 million children around the world have missed an average of 40 percent of their school meals.

And while many businesses and other educational institutions are adapting and returning to in-person learning, the pandemic-fueled school hunger crisis is far from over. Turning our economy back around has led to another domino effect that is being felt around the globe—a supply chain shortage.

Our students are on the frontlines of this crisis as nutrition services and administrators face delivery snags and struggle to obtain everything from crucial meal ingredients to utensils and trays.

President Biden continues to use levers of the federal government to try and alleviate this crises, including working with goods carriers to increase shipments of goods. And we should pass his Build Back Better reconciliation bill as quickly as possible because it includes provisions to bolster our domestic supply chains.

A recently announced $1.5 billion school aid program would help small farmers and ranchers get meals into schools in a way that values local economies, environmental sustainability, support for workers, animal welfare, and nutrition.

But we can also help by sourcing more food directly from farmers and ranchers. To this end, the Biden administration can and should clarify the rules surrounding a recently announced $1.5 billion school aid program.

This would help rebalance the scales in favor of independent family farmers at a time when nearly 60 percent of the $1.3 billion USDA Foods Program spending goes to only 15 large multinational corporations. It would also get meals into schools in a way that values priorities like local economies, environmental sustainability, support for workers, animal welfare, and nutrition.

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I am leading a bicameral effort with my friend Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey, asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut through any bureaucratic red tape and better empower local and independent family farmers and ranchers. I’m proud that 19 other senators and representatives have already joined us in this effort.

Independent family farmers and ranchers are often located directly within a school’s community. By collaborating directly with them, the USDA could help circumvent many of the supply chain issues facing the big food corporations right now. In the process, the agency would also be ensuring its current food purchasing practices are aligned with the administration’s commitment to developing supply chains that are not only secure, but also diverse and resilient.

COVID-19 has exposed just how fragile our social safety net programs are. Congress and the administration are now taking a hard look at the gaps in our current food system, which includes not only the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but the National School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, and after-school snack and meal programs. That work will take many months.

It is my hope it will be examined as part of a White House hunger conference, which I have been pushing for as chairman of the House Rules Committee. Just this week, I introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would make a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger and Health a reality. This conference would draw together all the arms of government: state and local leaders, tribal leaders, nonprofit and for-profit businesses, advocates, and those with lived experiences to design a roadmap to end hunger in America by 2030.

In the meantime, this is one step we can take right now that will help solve the supply chain challenge, since so many big food corporations are being impacted right now. It would also more fully utilize our small farmers and ranchers as part of the school food procurement system, allowing us to better support them in the long-term. It achieves this while ensuring that our kids have access to healthy foods at a time when many families are struggling to afford them at the grocery store.

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I am in awe of the work so many school districts have done and continue to do during the pandemic in the face of enormous challenges. Many are fighting for the resources they deserve and have been forced to innovate in new approaches to feeding kids. The Biden administration and Congress should be using every last tool at our disposal to alleviate the supply chain crunch facing school cafeterias right now and make it easier for kids to get the healthy, nutritious meals they all deserve.

James P. McGovern (D-MA) was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996. He is Chairman of the Committee on Rules. He is also the founder and co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus and sits on the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, where he advocates tirelessly for funding programs that help working families, children, and the elderly put food on the table when times are tough. Read more >

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  1. David De La Rosa
    Food is critical for the physical and mental well-being of our children. In addition to changing menus, it is important to invest in food infrastructure - central kitchens that provide the space to make food from scratch. However, to build one central kitchen in Top 50 metros that is a $1bn investment BUT 400 million fresher and healthier meals a year.

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