Legislation advancing in the Oklahoma legislature would strip the Department of Education of authority over school lunches.
While the author of the Senate bill said his interest was strictly in creating stronger connections between federally funded child nutrition programs and local sources of nutritious foods, the House author said pandemic concerns were also driving its legislation.
“The House author told us that some members of the Legislative Assembly felt that there was too much emphasis on ensuring children were fed during the pandemic and not on raising children” , said Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs and deputy chief of staff at Oklahoma State. Department of Education.
House Bill 3432 would designate the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry as the state agency in charge of the national school meals law instead of the Department of Education (SDE) of State.
The author of the measure, Rep. Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee, confirmed that he sees the move as “an opportunity” to take something off the plate of education and hopefully move away more schools “heat and serve” meal options.
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“We think some challenges could have been handled better (during the pandemic),” Curbs told Tulsa World on Friday. “Dissemination of this process (of school meals) and dissemination of educational products may have been unbalanced in some districts. We know this is not an SDE issue. This is a district level problem.
He added: “They are doing their job – the last thing we want is for a child to starve to death. But when they (schools) have these secondary things to worry about, let’s take something off their plate and let them focus on education.
Senate Bill 1624 says it would grant the Board of Agriculture the power to administer the National School Meals Act.
The author of the measure, Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, which approved Bill 7-1 on Feb. 22. The measure was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee 14-4 on March 2.
“To me, that’s not where this bill came from,” Pugh said, referring to concerns Curbs has told many lawmakers. “I have executed a number of food policy bills. It’s about taking advantage of a lot of really good things that Ag already has at his disposal, not because of something bad happening.
“I see this as a better alignment of the agency’s mission and our services. The goal is health outcomes. I talked about (how) the way we eat and what we eat lowers our health scores.
The two lawmakers said they would ensure the necessary data and accounting bureaucracy was installed in the Agriculture Department – Curbs estimating it would take 1-2 years – before the administration of the feeding program took effect. be transferred.
But state education officials say the legislation would create duplication within the state’s overall bureaucracy because their department still needs to obtain child nutrition data for a variety of purposes, including calculating from state aid funding, accountability and accreditation of schools, and the federal E-Rate program which provides schools with discounted telecommunications services.
Jennifer Weber, executive director of child nutrition at the state Department of Education, said, “Several school districts just got wind of it, and I can’t answer when they ask what the problem is. The extra work that would cause us is ridiculous.
Curbs said the state would need to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove its infant nutrition program from the state Department of Education, but he believes between 12 and 15 other states have obtained such waivers. derogations.
“Some of us think there’s more opportunity for farm-to-table or farm-to-school programs and thinking outside the box with child nutrition,” Curbs said. . “We want to go back to church. The ladies who cook at church also cook in the school cafeteria. Now, more than ever, people really want to know where their food comes from.
Chris Bernard, executive director of Tulsa-based Hunger Free Oklahoma, said his organization remains politically neutral on the legislation. But even after contacting the lawmakers involved, he continues to have questions and concerns.
Conclusion: Bernard does not see the need to move the administration of school meals programs.
“Children need to eat to learn, so school meals are just as important as other things,” he said. “The State Department of Education has prioritized these programs for the past five years and has made great strides in reaching children in need. People think the quality of meals can improve, but that’s a matter for individual districts, not the state Department of Education.
Bernard thinks it’s true that the Department of Agriculture, with adequate funding, human resources, and time, could be properly set up to administer the state’s school lunch programs. But he said there was no doubt that bureaucracy would be increased.
“Moving child nutrition to agriculture doesn’t create more dollars for Farm to Table or whatever. It’s the same programs, same reimbursement for schools, and schools will have the same documents and data requirements “Schools already have to deal with SDE and DHS (Oklahoma’s Department of Social Services), but they would add a third state agency as a party to complicate those processes,” he said. of data sharing, which can create more opportunities for challenges.”
Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist is among the principals who have just learned of the progress of this legislation and are questioning the need for a sweeping change in the administration of the program.
“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Gist said. “Changing the way these federal funds are distributed in our state to serve children and families means creating and adjusting entire bureaucracies to adapt to change, and quite frankly, no one has time for that.”
Tulsa Public Schools offered drive-thru pickup Friday for snack and meal packages for children 18 and under to help local families get through next week’s spring break.
Child nutrition workers prepared enough for 250 children, 100 more than usual for such events. Each received 1½ gallons of milk, five shelf-stable snacks such as applesauce, cheese crackers and corn tortilla chips, and five frozen dinners with an entrée, fruits and vegetables.
The TPS ran out with 20 minutes remaining in the two-hour pickup window the district announced to parents.
Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, voted the lone “no” on Senate Bill 1624 at the Education Committee.
“One of my questions concerns the duplication of bureaucracy. I’m concerned about the child nutrition data SDE needs to have to administer a number of other programs, and I’m concerned about Ag and SDE being able to communicate,” Dossett said. “My personal objection on behalf of Senate District 35 was that I had not received proper evidence for such a drastic change.
“Looking at the bill at this time, we authorize the Board of Ag to and incur any the expenses necessary to accomplish this task. It is a very permissive language. I don’t know what’s broken so we have to fix it.
Writer Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton contributed to this story.
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