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Mr. President, I am pleased today to join my friend from North Dakota, Senator Heitkamp, in introducing the School Food Modernization Act to assist schools in providing healthier meals to students throughout the country.
School meals play a vital role in the lives of our young people. More than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program every schoolday. In Maine, 40 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on household income.
The food served to these children has a demonstrable effect on their health and well-being. Many children consume up to half their daily caloric intake at school. In fact, children often get their most nutritious meal of the day at school instead of at home.
At the same time, too many of our children are at risk of serious disease. One-third of the children in this country are overweight or obese, which increases their risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. These ailments may have a lifelong effect on their health as they grow to adulthood.
Given the concerns about the health of our children, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued updated school meal nutrition standards that call for increased servings of fruit, vegetables, low-fat products, and whole grains while limiting the intake of fats, sugar, salt, and excess calories.
In response, our schools have stepped up to the plate. Nationwide, schools are working diligently to meet the standards and serve healthier meals. For example, in the New Sweden Consolidated School in Aroostook County, ME, food service manager Melanie Lagasse prepares meals from scratch instead of opening cans or pushing a defrost button. The school's 64 students, ranging from preschool to eighth grade, have grown to relish the chicken stew, baked fish, and whole grain pasta and meatloaf that she makes fresh every day.
Many schools, however, lack the right tools for preparing meals rich in fresh ingredients and must rely on workarounds that are expensive, inefficient, and unsustainable. Schools built decades ago lack the tools and the infrastructure necessary to comply fully with the new USDA guidelines. In fact, many lack any capacity beyond reheating and holding food for meal service.
To serve healthier meals to their students, 99 percent of Maine school districts need at least one piece of equipment and almost half--48 percent--of districts need kitchen infrastructure upgrades. While some of the needs appear quite simple--food processors, knives, serving-portion utensils, scales, utility carts--there is still a cost. The median equipment need per school is $45,000.
Even more costly would be making the required changes to infrastructure. Forty-eight percent of Maine schools need some kind of infrastructure change to serve healthy meals. For example, 41 percent of schools need more physical space, 22 percent need more electrical capacity, 21 percent need more plumbing capacity, and 19 percent need more ventilation. In addition, for Maine, 82 percent of school districts are in areas defined as rural.
Add the equipment costs together with the infrastructure costs and it is estimated that overall, $58.8 million would be needed just in Maine to serve healthy meals to all of our students. That far exceeds the $74,000 grant the USDA awarded Maine in March for new equipment.
Our bill aims to make better use of current resources by authorizing loan guarantee assistance and grants for school equipment and infrastructure improvements and by helping food service personnel meet the updated nutrition standards. First, it would establish a loan guarantee assistance program within USDA to help schools acquire new equipment to prepare and serve healthier, more nutritious meals to students. School administrators and other eligible borrowers could obtain Federal guarantees for 80 percent of the loan value needed to construct, remodel, or expand their kitchens, dining, or food storage infrastructure.
Second, it would provide targeted grant assistance to give school administrators and food service directors the seed funding needed to upgrade kitchen infrastructure or to purchase high- quality, durable kitchen equipment such as commercial ovens, steamers, and stoves.
Finally, to aid school food service personnel in meeting the updated nutrition guidelines, the legislation would strengthen training and provide technical assistance by authorizing USDA to provide support on a competitive basis to highly qualified third-party trainers to develop and administer training and technical assistance.
We need to start our schoolchildren off on the right food every day. If they are going to compete in the global arena, they need to be healthy and their minds and bodies fully nourished. This bill will help us achieve that goal.
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