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Roberts shrugs off COVID-19 fears to speak to school meal group

Kansas senator pushing for reauthorization of children's meal programs

Sen. Pat Roberts says his staff cited concerns about COVID-19 in trying to persuade him to cancel an appearance Monday at the School Nutrition Association’s gathering of several hundred people from across the country.

Roberts, R-Kan., put those concerns aside and spoke to a friendly and enthusiastic audience, urging them to lay out the need for a child nutrition reauthorization that sets policies for the federal school lunch and breakfast programs, after-school feeding programs for children, summer feeding programs for low-income children and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program.

The senator said his age, 83, puts him in a high-risk group for complications or death if he contracts the virus. He’ll be 84 on April 20. 

“The people who are very vulnerable are people like me,” Roberts said. “I feel fine. I haven’t canceled anything.”

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But he said he now bumps elbows rather than shakes hands.

“I know these folks and I really wanted to thank them [for past support],” Roberts said afterward. He has worked with the organization of school food managers and their suppliers on food policies for years, and association President Gay Anderson welcomed Roberts, who retires in January 2021, as a champion on nutrition.

Roberts, who is Senate Agriculture chairman, and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have been negotiating on funding and flexibility for school meal providers. Roberts and Stabenow say it is possible to get a bill through the Senate and the House despite a congressional calendar that will be interrupted by primaries and Republican and Democratic national conventions.

“We’re trying to work out the final differences. We’re both committed to doing it,” said Roberts, who said he thinks that existing regulations can be streamlined to make them manageable for school cafeterias with small staffs without undermining efforts to provide nutritious meals to school kids.

Roberts said he remains optimistic he and Stabenow can put together a chairman’s mark, but he acknowledged that finding an offset to allow more funding is “tenuous” and time is short.

Appropriators continue to provide mandatory funding for the programs although the law that set nutrition standards for child nutrition programs expired in 2015. The Agriculture Department has made limited regulatory changes to the nutrition standards, but the department has a package of broader proposed changes open for public comment until March 23.

The School Nutrition Association has welcomed the proposal’s steps to “ease overly complex and burdensome administrative and meal planning mandates.” But the proposals have raised concerns elsewhere in the nutrition community that final regulations could undo requirements for meals with more fruit and vegetables, less fat and fewer calories championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is another potential complicating factor, Roberts acknowledged.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in consultation with medical experts, will have to determine if COVID-19 is a threat to members and how to proceed, he said.

“We’re in, but I suspect if things get a lot worse, the best thing would be to say, ‘okay, we’re not meeting for a while until we get this thing under control,’” Roberts said.

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