Substantial changes to SC school meals program under consideration at State House

Published: Oct. 24, 2023 at 7:10 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Could every student in South Carolina eat for free at school, or could a completely different state agency be in charge of your child’s school meals next year?

Those are big questions the Child Food and Nutrition Services Study Committee has been considering since this summer at the State House, and as its work inches toward a close, they could result in significant changes in cafeterias across South Carolina.

Rep. Patrick Haddon, R – Greenville and the committee’s chair, said this work began with a single inquiry.

“If we’re doing such a great job right now, then why do we have cafeterias that don’t serve great food?” Haddon, who is also a farmer, said during a committee meeting Tuesday in Columbia.

That question evolved into an even bigger one: Should the state Department of Education remain in charge of school nutrition services, or should the Department of Agriculture take over?

After months of meetings and testimony, the committee, made up of lawmakers and representatives from the education and agriculture sectors, still doesn’t have a clear answer or a consensus.

Some said they have not seen enough evidence to necessitate a move and, from what they have heard, the Department of Education is successfully overseeing operations.

“If the government’s got a program that’s working, you better leave it alone because we do a whole lot of programs that aren’t working so good,” Senate Education Committee Chair Greg Hembree, R – Horry, said. “Why are we moving the chairs around the deck of the Titanic?”

Rep. Jermaine Johnson, D – Richland, said he was initially against moving food services to the Department of Agriculture, fearing it would cause too much needless disruption, but now feels it is the best option to support South Carolina students in the cafeteria and the classroom.

“South Carolina is consistently in the bottom every year when it comes to education,” Johnson said. “So I don’t see, personally, how offloading some of these responsibilities or sending it over somewhere else is going to be a bad thing for our Department of Education, to spend more time on educating our children.”

The committee opted Tuesday to delay a vote on which agency it will recommend operate the meals program, in order to try to receive more testimony and consider a hybrid option that could leave some responsibilities with the Department of Education and shift others to the Department of Agriculture.

But still others counter the answer as to who is in charge will not result in their goal of getting more local and healthy food into school cafeterias.

“Neither one of them agencies will be able to impact an individual district’s decision on what they serve, unless the state decides to put some things in the legislature,” Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services Director Joe Urban said. “I know some states have, where they require a certain amount of local produce. That needs to be a legislator thing.”

One of the committee’s other objectives is to determine if South Carolina should offer free breakfast and lunch at school to every student in the state.

A bill filed at the State House would implement universal free meals across South Carolina and has garnered bipartisan support.

They decided to wait on making a recommendation on this question, too, waiting for new data coming out in mid-November to have a better idea of how much it could cost.

But Urban cautioned that estimate might not be accurate long-term and said it could be difficult to determine a realistic cost.

“That number you’re going to get, I believe, is going to be manageable, but I promise you over the next three or four years, that number is going to grow exponentially,” he said, adding that was because of the likelihood that many families would stop filling out an annual income form that determines federal reimbursement rates for school meals if all meals are covered, regardless of if they complete the paperwork or not. If families do not fill out the form, leading to more student meals receiving a lower reimbursement rate, then the state would have to pay more to cover the cost of all meals.

The Child Food and Nutrition Services Study Committee plans to meet at least once more to figure out its recommendations, which are due before the entire legislature returns to Columbia in January.

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