By Rep. Kristi Noem
Moms and dads in South Dakota try to do right by our kids. We try to instill character, integrity, a strong work ethic and a healthy dose of South Dakota common sense. We also do our best to be sure our kids eat well. We know they need fruits and vegetables, and a good amount of protein and grains.
The federal government also thinks our kids should be eating healthy. For the first time in over 30 years, the school lunch program is undergoing major changes as a result of 2010 legislation known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The changes require healthier foods and calorie restrictions for school meals. While it’s good to know there is interest in our kids’ health, we've seen all too often how top-down Washington approaches don’t always operate as expected on the ground. And it's looking like this is the case for new school lunch standards.
My kids were the first to voice complaints to me that they weren't feeling full, and then I heard that concern echoed by parents and students across the state. Talking with South Dakota school lunch program directors, superintendents and students and administrators during a recent visit to Georgia Morse Middle School in Pierre made it even clearer that these standards are cause for concern. Aside from the increased paperwork and other burdens placed on our schools, which particularly strain our rural schools, too many kids feel as if they aren't getting enough to eat. That's because the United States Department of Food and Agriculture (USDA) has placed caps on the number of calories a student can consume at lunch based solely on their age. These caps don't take into account activity level or other needs.
As a mother of three, I know how important nutritious meals are, but my concern is that these caps on calories are tying the hands of South Dakota schools in providing our kids the amount of food they need. That's why I sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to ask how the department is monitoring the results of the new program and what kind of flexibility they are planning on providing schools.
I think the best decisions are those made closest to home. When it comes to something as important as our kids' lunches, I think our local schools should have the flexibility to tailor the lunch program to better meet the needs of individuals students. I will continue to closely monitor this issue and do what I can to make sure that our kids are getting enough to eat and South Dakota schools aren’t unduly burdened because of these new standards.
Rep. Kristi Noem is South Dakota’s lone U.S. Representative, elected in November 2010. She serves on the Agriculture, Education and Workforce and Natural Resources Committees.