The students at Chester Area School had a special visitor in their cafeteria on Monday while they were eating a special pre-Thanksgiving meal of turkey and sweet potatoes.
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem dropped in during the noon meal to talk to the boys and girls. During her visit, Noem talked to the students about many things -- how the basketball teams looked for this season, her work in Washington, D.C., and her family. The South Dakota congresswoman also spoke about a proposal that she has sponsored to reform the most recent changes in the nation's school lunch program.
Noem, a Republican House member, announced Monday that she would submit the Reducing Federal Mandates on School Lunch Act to Congress next week.
Two years ago, the Obama administration had supported changes in school lunches that encouraged more vegetables and fruits on the menus, calorie limits on grains and meat, and total per meal calorie counts. Since then, school officials have argued that the new meal standards from the federal government are too inflexible, leading to difficult meal price increases, complaints about meal sizes, and inconvenient restraints on what cafeterias can serve.
"A lot of our schools are having a hard time adjusting to (the new standards)," Noem said, speaking to a Chester High School government class after the lunch period.
Noem's legislation would make permanent the U.S. Agriculture Department's temporary easing of meat and grain rules and offer some flexibility to school administrators concerning requirements that have increased meal costs.
In a press release, Noem said, "...forcing schools into a one-size-fits-all school lunch program doesn't work for our schools or our students."
Noem also argued that the current meal standards "place an unnecessary burden on school administrators" in small and poorer school districts and reservations and "send many of our kids home feeling hungry."
Speaking to the government students, Noem said that some complaints about the new meal rules centered on students throwing away too much food. She listened to questions and comments from the students. Erin Benson, a Chester senior, said that it didn't seem possible that elementary students should share the same meal standards as high school students.
Other classroom discussion subjects included a new Farm Bill, the U.S. Forest Service and the national debt.
Noem said that she considered a successful agricultural sector and the Farm Bill programs "as a national security situation" -- insurance that the U.S. would have a stable food supply.
"We wanted to make sure that we were able to feed ourselves and it was affordable," Noem said.
According to Noem, the Forest Service should have the ability to move dead timber from the nation's forests to reduce fire danger. Congress and the Forest Service have worked on the Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project, an effort to remove dead trees and improve forest health.
Noem expressed her concerns about federal spending and the U.S. national debt, which is currently estimated at $17 trillion. She also spoke about the sale of U.S. Treasury securities to foreign nations and overseas investors.
"We're borrowing from a communist country, China, to pay our bills," Noem said.
As of Oct. 2013, accounting shows that out of foreign-held U.S. debt, China holds $1.3 trillion, Japan has $1.1 trillion and European countries including Russia hold a total of $1.1 trillion. Overseas holdings of U.S. debt amount to about $5.7 trillion.
The remaining $11.3 trillion is held by governmental entities and many domestic investors. The Social Security Trust Fund contains $2.76 trillion in Treasury securities, government retirement funds (including federal and Postal Service employees) hold $827 billion, mutual funds own $946 billion, and state and local governments have $704 billion.
Other holders of national debt include the Federal Reserve at $1.8 trillion, other investors (including personal trusts and estates, brokers, dealers and businesses) at $1.5 trillion, and U.S. Savings Bond holders at $182 billion.
As the Q&A session wrapped up, Chester Superintendent Heath Larson told Noem that he would appreciate any flexibility on school meal program rules that the federal government could provide.
According to Larson, Chester's program had to change serving one of the students' favorite standby menu items, buns and peanut butter, because the meal planners couldn't keep the overall meal calorie count below official limits. He said the cafeteria had to offer the sandwiches as an a la carte item at extra cost.
Noem had visited 15 high school students in Adam Gale's government class.