Dear Secretary Vilsack:
I write on behalf of several New Hampshire school districts to share their concerns regarding the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) proposed nutritional guidelines for school meals.
As you know, in January 2011, USDA published a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-296). Implementation of this rule would advance a worthy goal of increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk in school meals.
Nearly one-third of children in America are overweight or obese. From 1980 to 2008, the prevalence of obesity in the United States more than tripled among children and adolescents. As a mother, I recognize how important it is for children to learn and practice healthy habits, such as eating a balanced diet and exercising. Certainly, it is of great importance that New Hampshire's citizens make healthy lifestyle choices.
While the goal of improving the nutrition and health of American students is laudable, I am concerned that the new federal requirements will place a significant financial burden on local New Hampshire schools. In cold weather climates, such as in the northeast, some fruits and vegetables will not be available year-round. Unable to purchase these products locally, school districts will see an increase in their already-rising food costs. Nationally, the proposed changes to the nutritional guidelines are projected to cost approximately $7 billion over 5 years. Taking into account these estimates, the proposed mandates represent an enormous cost at a time when schools can least afford it.
As the rule-making proceeds, I encourage the Department to ensure that any new federal mandates do not undermine the ability of local school districts to continue serving low-income students who rely heavily on school meal programs. Additionally, as USDA moves forward, it is important to appreciate that local school districts, with input from parents and administrators, are best-positioned to make decisions for local schools - including what's on their lunch menu.
Given the concerns I have heard from New Hampshire school districts, I respectfully request that you reconsider the proposed guidelines on school nutrition. Many state and local school districts have cautioned that the aggressive implementation schedule of the proposed change will lead to unduly burdensome costs. While school meal guidelines should promote high nutritional standards for America's students, we must also avoid the imposition of unfunded federal mandates on states and local communities that are already struggling to stretch their budgets in this difficult economy.
Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to your reply.