The health of our children and families is critical. Healthy children are better students, and a healthy workforce is more productive. Ensuring a safe and nutritious food supply supports a healthy economy and quality of life for Texas families.
When the school touts school lunch standards, but the kids still say ‘yuck,’ what are those local and national examples and lessons learned that we could promote throughout the state?
By partnering with health providers, universities, and schools, we can tackle childhood obesity rates and promote healthy lifestyles in our communities. A prosperous state economy depends on healthy Texans.
Texans are entitled to a safe food supply. This can only be accomplished through adequate training, scale-appropriate regulation, and transparent enforcement of clear and understandable rules to ensure families are protected.
School children in the U.S. have had opportunity to get a nutritious, low-cost (or free) meal at school since Truman first signed the National School Lunch Act in 1936. The program has grown since then, initially serving 7.1 million children to current participation among 30.4 million children nationwide.
The USDA sets national standards for the nutritional value of school lunches, as well as programs that provide for healthy breakfasts, child and adult institutional or daycare meals, fresh fruits and vegetable snacks, and even meals for children in the summer. However, the agencies that administer the program at the state and local levels have significant authority over how the school lunch program and others are implemented, such as what specific foods are offered.
These meals for children and adults are provided through USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, so they are intended to provide for healthy meals. We all know, though, that it’s not nutritious if they don’t eat it. That’s one reason for allowing state and local flexibility. Another benefit of localized decision-making is the opportunity to directly support farmers by purchasing products directly or through distributors to incorporate into meals.
With the charge to provide healthy meals to children and also to create market opportunities for farmers, that places significant responsibility on those state and local agencies. On top of that responsibility is the budgetary challenge that the programs create. USDA provides a $3.23 reimbursement to food service administrators for each unpaid lunch, and much less if the child does not qualify for a free meal.
Despite the challenges presented, though, the school lunch program is vital for maintaining health among children - especially for children who may otherwise not be able to afford healthy food on their own.
Since the school lunch program got an overhaul with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, there have been anecdotal reports of unwanted produce being wasted. But, multiple studies show that children are eating more fresh fruits and veggies as a result of the changes. That not only means more healthy foods for kids, but more marketing opportunity for farmers.
The National School Lunch Program yields a double benefit. Healthy students miss fewer school days and perform better academically. And, farmers have opportunities to expand into new, stable markets.
In our state’s 1,153 school districts and 9,220 schools and other sites that participate in the National School Lunch Program, we serve lunch to over 3 million children every school day. Many of our students — 60% of all students in the state — are eligible for free or reduced price meals, meaning that their families do not have the financial ability to provide a complete and well-balanced meal at home.
The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) administers the National School Lunch Program and other related nutrition programs in our state. In order to fulfill the hefty responsibility of providing nutritious foods, TDA manages reimbursements to local school districts, leads training for food service workers, and monitors local entities to ensure compliance with operational and nutritional standards.
The Educational Service Centers organized in 20 different regions of the state also provide support for school foodservice, including trainings, technical assistance, and coordination of cooperative purchasing among individual districts.
Beyond the administrative duties, TDA can also play a vital educational role. Previous TDA administrations have championed school meals and other nutrition programs, recognizing their importance in combatting hunger and ensuring that students are healthy and ready to learn.
TDA can also take advantage of the opportunity to support Texas farmers. Legislation that started the state Farm to School program was passed in 2009, and gains have been made in connecting school food service with farmers and ranchers. Barriers to further growth still exist, but the educational and nutritional opportunities for children and the marketing opportunities for farmers will be worth a continued investment in overcoming those challenges.
TDA does indeed have a great responsibility to ensure that children who take part in the school lunch program and other nutrition programs administered by the state receive a healthy meal. Texans do not step back from responsibility, and TDA will not step back from meaningful nutrition standards for school meals.
The entire school campus is a learning environment, and while lunchtime is an opportunity for schoolchildren to interact with one another and enjoy their meal, it is also a chance to help students develop healthy eating habits by offering and promoting nutritious foods.
Farm to School programming is beneficial for children, farmers, and communities. TDA will commit to identifying and addressing challenges and to building on successful efforts in Texas and beyond.
Healthy children are good learners, miss fewer school days, and are less disruptive in class. Farmers in Texas can contribute to our children’s health while also tapping into new markets.
Currently, progress towards effective nutrition standards is being halted at the federal level. That is no reason for Texas to join in undermining progress. TDA should step up to the challenges and find local, state, and national partners to help overcome them, to fulfill our responsibility to children, farmers, and communities throughout our state.
Healthy habits among children and families rely greatly on healthy diet, along with physical activity and other factors. An often-cited statistic used as an indicator of health is the body-mass index, calculated as a function of an individual’s weight and height. This obesity measure is helpful as a screening tool for individuals and for analyzing data from various population segments.
Recent statistics are indeed alarming - two-thirds of US adults are either overweight or obese and nearly one-third of all children are overweight or obese. However, BMI alone does not determine the health of an individual — it does not account for proportions of bone, muscle, or fat density. We still need to rely on commonly accepted values like BMI for scientific study, and being overweight contributes to other negative health outcomes. But, identifying and tracking behavioral indicators of health, such as nutrient intake and levels of physical activity can lead to a more comprehensive view of individual and population health.
In Texas, obesity rates are even higher than national averages in some age groups and are significantly greater among Hispanic and African-American communities. In 2011 the Texas Comptroller’s Office, under the leadership of Susan Combs who formerly held the Texas Commissioner of Ag post, published a report indicating that obesity cost Texas businesses $9.5 billion in 2009. The figure, which accounts for higher health costs and lost productivity due to illness and absence, was predicted to rise to $32.5 billion in another decade.
As for our children, obesity is linked with increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease and has even been tied to poor academic performance. Considering that Texas spent over 43% of its total appropriations on health care, it’s an economic issue for individuals and for the entire state.
"What can TDA do?"
Our state has a wealth of academic and research institutions that have created or studied real world strategies to promote healthy lifestyles. The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) can partner with these institutions to incorporate evidence-based healthy food access and consumption efforts through all of its programs and outreach. In fact, not doing so creates a significant liability for the department, as TDA would be culpable in the state’s poor health. TDA administers the National School Lunch Program, which provides over 3 million meals a day, as well as other nutrition programs like summer feeding, child and adult care meals, and the Texans Feeding Texans food bank effort.
Research clearly shows that approaches, such as worksite wellness, return up to $3 for every $1 invested. The investment leads to savings in the form of increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and lower turnover. TDA can serve as a model worksite for other state agencies and private businesses by incentivizing and rewarding employees’ healthy behaviors.
Having healthy food available and affordable in your community allows for healthy food choices. USDA maintains a “food desert” map, which indicates areas where populations experience limited access to healthy and affordable foods. These areas include urban, suburban, and rural communities, but all are characterized by their significant challenges to getting healthy foods.
Good health in our state saves money for schools, state agencies, businesses, and families. It is also key to good quality of life. Encouraging healthy choices and lifestyles can be a matter of educating an individual, but awareness must be accompanied by efforts to enact evidence-based policies and strategies that ensure access. TDA is poised to be a leader in this area and will dedicate the tools and resources necessary for healthy kids, healthy families, and healthy communities across Texas.
Understanding food safety requires an understanding of the entire food system, from the farm to the fork and every stop along the way.
Consider the typical American meal - a cheeseburger and fries, and then try to envision all the steps necessary for producing that meal. Each component has a different origin and has undergone a variety of processes. Perhaps the lettuce was grown in California, the tomatoes in Florida, and the potatoes produced in Idaho may have been processed into fries in Pennsylvania.
There is also the beef, possibly bred in Mexico, then shipped to Texas to fatten for slaughter, and processed in Oklahoma. And, of course, there’s the wheat in the bun, the eggs in the mayo, and milk to make the cheese.
The origins of food may be an overwhelming exercise, but then also think of all the on-farm production and harvesting components - the soil, the irrigation water, fieldworkers, tractors, trailers, washing and packing facilities, and ultimately on to transport and storage. And all that happens before the food even gets to the grocery retailer, manufacturer or processor, or even the burger joint around the corner.
Now, consider that every touchpoint along the way comes with the challenge to maintain food safety and also creates opportunity for something to go wrong. Some stops present more risk than others, and addressing those particular high-risk areas should be an underlying theme of food safety.
Why is this important to all Texans?
Nearly four million Texans get sick every year from food-borne pathogen. That is one in every four man, woman, or child, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services annual health statistics report. When two or more people are infected by the same source, that is considered an “outbreak” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 21 reported outbreak cases in Texas in 2016.
While all Texans can be at risk, those with weakened or undeveloped immune systems - specifically children and the elderly - are much more vulnerable. In fact, nearly 3,000 Americans die from food-related illness last year.
Many of the risks of food-borne contamination and illness are introduced during “downstream” activities such as processing, storage, transporting, and preparation, but a safe food supply starts on the farm. There are important steps that farmers can take to ensure healthy, safe food. With over nearly 250,000 farms in Texas, providing our families with a wide range of meats, poultry, dairy, eggs, grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables, food safety on the farm is a concern for our producers, in our state.
An outbreak or recall not only costs the producer at the farm level but also at the retail level. Although complying with higher process standards adds to the cost of doing business, losses from the foodborne illness were several times higher than the costs of complying with escalating standards to help prevent such an outbreak.
In 2011, the US Congress passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) that charged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with taking a proactive and preventative approach to food safety. Following the passage of the law was the lengthy and contentious rule-making period, and then regulations for production of fruits and vegetables and for food processing facilities were released.
The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) has a state-level administrative responsibility to support compliance with the regulation among farmers. The federal rule addresses a critical issue, but is not without complexities, exceptions, and conditional enforcement. FSMA requires funding and other resources for implementation and monitoring and could impact the cost of production for the farmer and the price of food for the consumer.
Regulating the production and processing of food is a necessary role for agencies like TDA. Consumers also have a role in food safety. Using meat thermometers, washing hands and following safe food handling and preparation guidelines are all part of that role.
Families should also have the opportunity to make informed decisions about the products they purchase. Nutrition facts and ingredients labels are useful tools. Another is country of origin labeling, referred to as COOL, which requires retailers to notify consumers of the country where certain food products came from. However, there are significant exemptions to that rule instituted as part of international trade agreements.
Many processors and retailers are going above and beyond the basic requirements, however, with labels indicating organic, GMO-free, no antibiotics ever, and countless other indications - both regulated and unregulated. An educated consumer can also reference those labels to make food choices.
"What can TDA do?"
TDA will take up the charge of implementing the new FSMA regulations in a cost-effective manner that provides for transparency and fairness while limiting the financial burden and negative consequences for farmers and ensuring a safe food supply for consumers.
This can be accomplished by providing clear guidelines to producers and ensuring that staff are exceptionally well trained and have an understanding of the many facets of food production.
TDA will also acknowledge that different farms have different production and marketing strategies, which will then create varying risks, and more complex systems create more risk for contamination. For example, the Tester-Hagan amendment of the FSMA legislation exempted certain direct-to-consumer farms from certain requirements, and sets scaled requirements for small and very small producers.
The bottom line is that food grown, purchased, and consumed in Texas should be a source of nutrition and wellbeing, not contamination or illness. TDA must play the dual role of offering consumers the safest food supply possible and supporting our farmers and producers in their food safety efforts.