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Putnam (left) talked with Jacksonville Farmers Market Manager Greg Tison during a visit in April.
Photo by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
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Agriculture Department takes over school lunch oversight

by Michael Peltier
The News Service of Florida

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation Thursday that transfers oversight of the state’s school lunch program to state agriculture officials, who will now be responsible for providing meals to the state’s 2.6 million school children.

A top priority of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the transfer of school lunch oversight from the Department of Education comes as the state tries to educate a generation of children and their parents on the health benefits of a balanced diet while opening the public school system to Florida agricultural products.

Putnam hailed the governor’s decision to sign the measure (SB 1312), dubbed the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act.

The measure was an agency priority, with Putnam arguing that most federal nutrition programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that overseeing school lunches would dovetail efficiently with other agency responsibilities.

“Together, we’re going to direct more of Florida’s fresh fruits and vegetables to Florida students,” Putnam said in a statement.

“We’re going to help Florida’s children build healthier eating habits. And we’re going to take on the challenges of the childhood obesity epidemic,” he said.

In 2008, 17 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 were obese, triple the rate in 1976, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children and adolescents, the CDC found, are more likely to develop obesity-related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, which used to be limited to adults.

Another study of 5-17-year-olds found that 70 percent of obese children had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and 39 percent had at least two risk factors.

The law transfers 45 full-time equivalent positions and an estimated $810 million in federal funds and $16.8 million in general revenue from the Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for the administration of the school food and nutrition programs.

In May, Putnam said he was considering placing restrictions on the kinds of snack food that could be distributed from school vending machines as one avenue to encourage better eating habits among students.

Public schools have become the conduits for programs aimed at improving the diets of growing children, many of whom rely upon free and reduced school lunches to meet their daily nutritional needs.

School breakfast and summer lunch programs have over the years become more widespread as officials attempt to improve the diets of a generation of young people more familiar with the names of fast food chains than vegetables.

“With the Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act signed today, we can continue our mission of ending childhood hunger and extending nutrition to all of Florida’s children,” said Debra Susie, executive director for Florida Impact and the Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger.

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