Oklahoma Senate proposes bill to change school lunch program | Government and politics

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Senate on Tuesday introduced a bill that would remove administration of the state Department of Education’s school lunch program.

Senate Bill 1624, by Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, would transfer administration of the program to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

The measure passed by a vote of 30 to 14 and is now heading to the House, where a similar measure has been advanced.

“As a state, we should be focusing on why 60 percent of our students qualify for free or discounted lunches,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. “Instead of revamping who delivers the national school lunch program, which only diverts attention and resources from students in need, our state needs a broader view of how to provide more opportunities for families.

Pugh said he did not expect any disruption in services as a result of the change.

Nothing in the bill would change federal guidelines for nutritional standards and content, Pugh said.

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“Nothing at the local level will change,” he said. “It will be the administrative side.”

He said there would be no additional cost, adding that about 30 employees would be transferred from the state Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture.

There was no debate on the bill, but Pugh answered dozens of questions from senators.

Pugh said the country was currently going through a food supply chain crisis and was being affected by inflation.

If the state could get more food from local sources, it would help solve an economic problem for the districts, which bear a cost to administer the program, Pugh said.

Sen. Jake Merrick, R-Yukon, said he was concerned the measure would subject the Department of Agriculture and farmers to more federal oversight and regulation.

Pugh said producers could sign up for the program. He said he’s spoken to almost every farm association in the state. Comments have been positive, but they remain neutral on the bill, he said.

None raised concerns about further scrutiny, Pugh said.

Questioned by Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, Pugh said the bill was not requested by a constituent or entity.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, asked if it wouldn’t be best to have an interim study on the matter before making “such a major policy change.”

Pugh said he didn’t believe an interim study was necessary.

“No. 1, we align this program under the agency whose direct mission is to feed people,” Pugh said.

Second, an agency charged with feeding the country would maximize and leverage all local, state and federal relationships to get more local sources of food into school cafeterias, Pugh said. This would provide more opportunities for local producers to connect and increase the nutritional content and quality of food, he said.

Pugh amended the measure to remove an emergency clause and make the measure effective July 1, 2023.

“If they choose to transfer administration of the National School Lunch Act program to our agency, we will do our best to make it happen because we believe that student nutrition is a very important aspect of their education,” said the Secretary of Agriculture, Blayne Arthur.

“We welcome the continued conversation with the Legislature to ensure the best decisions are made for students in our state.”

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