LOLO - If Capitol Hill had its own lunch lady, it would be Julie Paradis, who visited Lolo School on Tuesday to talk about pending recipe changes to child nutrition services nationwide.
Paradis leads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the USDA expenditures. She oversees 15 programs, including school lunches, the Summer Food Service and the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
More than 20 school, nutrition and food service leaders from Montana ate lunch with the Lolo students, then spoke with Paradis about the pending renewal of the Child Nutrition Act.
"Having done this kind of work for 30 years now in Washington (D.C.), I've never seen this kind of commitment before," Paradis said of legislation on Capitol Hill to renew and expand the act, which regulates the programs she oversees.
The Senate's Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act would invest an additional $4.5 billion over the next decade, the largest single funding increase for the nutrition programs since their creation in 1966. The proposal moved out of committee in March but has not been called to vote. The House has yet to act on its version.
The bill stalled largely because it falls short of the $10 billion proposed in President Barack Obama's budget and strongly advocated by the first lady's "Let's Move!" campaign to end childhood obesity.
The nation's child nutrition programs currently operate on $16.3 billion a year.
The Senate bill would:
• Simplify how schools register children for free or reduced-price meals.
• Increase certification requirements for workers preparing school meals.
• Establish a grant program for expanding "Farm to School" programs.
• Provide financial incentives for schools that update nutrition standards to match new guidelines recommended by the Institute of Medicine.
• Set national standards for all foods sold at schools during academic hours, such as snack and beverage vending machines.
Those who gathered to speak with Paradis in Lolo agreed the legislation would make many welcome changes, but expressed some concern over the details of implementation and potential consequences for Montana.
Many asked Paradis and other leaders to consider the unique challenges of maintaining programs in rural areas.
"Maybe it's not as obvious in other states, but in Montana we have a hidden cost in delivery," said Coleen Kaiser, nutritionist from Montana State University who operates two federally assisted nutrition education programs.
Planning locations to distribute meals for the Summer Food Service - without discouraging participation because of the distance to travel - is another challenge, Kaiser said.
Excessive paperwork, too, can unnecessarily consume time and funds, said Valerie Addis, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Missoula County Public Schools.
Addis and others said they're glad the bill simplifies how schools help enroll students for free or reduced-price lunches, but hopes the concept is expanded.
She said she would like to see more low-income families enrolled in summer food programs, which she believes could be better coordinated with schools.
"If you trusted us to take care of children with federal dollars for nine months, why not another three?" Addis asked.
Addis and others also said it is difficult for schools to afford fresh produce and meet higher nutrition standards because of their restricted budgets.
The USDA reports that Montana serves more than 14 million school lunches each year, more than half of which are free or reduced-price. The USDA reimburses schools
$2.68 for each "free" lunch they serve, $2.28 for reduced-price meals and 25 cents for ones purchased by students.
Except for inflation adjustments, these standards have not changed since 1972, reports USA Today.
The Senate's bill proposes to increase those amounts by 6 cents per meal for schools that meet the new nutrition standards.
"The current funding is not going to be enough for us to make all the recommended changes," said Minkie Medora, chairwoman of the Food Security Council for the Montana Food Network.
Paradis assured the crowd repeatedly that the battle for more funding is not over yet and that their other specific concerns will be considered.
"We try to remember in Washington there is no cookie-cutter approach," Paradis said.
Despite the challenges ahead, Paradis remained confident.
She pointed to Lolo Elementary School as a reason for hope.
In 2006, it was the first Montana school to win a Gold Award in the USDA's HealthierUS School Challenge, for maintaining high nutrition standards along with physical education programs.
Before the crowd dispersed to sample snacks served at the school, Paradis thanked its members for collaborating on many of the efforts discussed, which she said is not a universal concept around the nation. She encouraged schools, food banks and other agencies to continue their teamwork.
"No matter where you come from, we all care about feeding hungry kids and fighting childhood obesity," Paradis said.
Jayme Fraser is a junior studying print journalism at the University of Montana who is interning at the Missoulian this summer. She can be reached at 523-5241 or at email@example.com.