WASHINGTON—Two members of Congress have introduced legislation that would grant schools support to upgrade their kitchens and obtain training and technical assistance to meet updated nutrition guidelines.
The School Food Modernization Act was introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Heide Heitkamp (D-N.D.) two years after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated nutrition standards that required schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods.
The lawmakers are striving to help schools meet nutrition standards through training of food service personnel and renovation of kitchens that they said were built decades ago and lack basic equipment to prepare wholesome foods.
The United Fresh Produce Association, a trade association representing produce companies, expressed its support for the legislation.
"Students across the country are excited about new fresh produce choices in salad bars, breakfast and lunch options, and even fresh vending. But, many schools need larger walk-in refrigerators, portable salad bars, shelving, and electrical infrastructure upgrades to meet the needs of their students for fresh, high-quality school meals and snacks," United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel said in a statement.
Although 86% of U.S. schools serve healthy lunches, many could do so more effectively and at less expense if they had modern equipment and infrastructure, Collins and Heitkamp pointed out, citing Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Kids often spend up to seven hours a day at school, making it particularly important that they get healthy meals to help them focus as they learn and grow. But in North Dakota, more than [70%] of school districts need new or improved kitchen equipment," Heitkamp said. "Congress can't just mandate healthy school lunch requirements."
The legislation would provide the following assistance:
· Provide targeted grant assistance to support upgrades of kitchen infrastructure or the purchasing of new equipment such as commercial ovens, steamers and stoves;
· Establish a loan assistance program within USDA to help schools purchase new equipment and serve healthier meals to students;
· Improve training and offer technical assistance to help food service personnel meet updated nutrition guidelines.
Last year, Reps. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) and Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) introduced similar legislation.
"Many school kitchens were built decades ago to simply reheat and hold foods. As a result, many food service workers don't have the training or tools required to bake, grill, and roast healthier foods," Pew Charitable Trusts said at the time Latham and McIntyre introduced the School Food Modernization Act. "The need to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure and improve staff training is now more critical than ever."