Sen. Michael Bennet and Kevin Concannon, the federal undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, joined some Thornton second-graders on Tuesday for a healthy lunch of burritos, corn, salad and fresh oranges.

Sigifredo Orona, left, and Michael Zamarano, second-graders at Coronado Hills Elementary School in Thornton, have lunch with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday in their school lunchroom.

Afterward, they chewed the fat with some adult heavy-hitters determined to make Colorado’s school lunches better for kids and to make good food in general easier to come by for the estimated 17.2 percent of Colorado children who lack enough food to meet their basic needs.

“It’s important, as we think about what we do, that we listen to our communities and inform our legislation with what you say, rather than the other way around,” Bennet, the state’s Democratic junior senator, told a group of about three dozen people participating in a roundtable discussion on childhood hunger at Coronado Hills Elementary School.

“We just enjoyed a healthy lunch,” said Concannon, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “A hundred thousand-plus schools in the United States served lunch today but many of them weren’t as healthy as the lunch we had. They don’t reflect the kind of improvements we know need to be made.”

Bennet and Concannon were anxious to promote two pieces of legislation that Bennet has had a hand in — the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a 10-year, $4.5 billion program to reduce childhood hunger and improve the quality of food available to children; and the Growing Farm to School Programs Act, a bill Bennet is co-sponsoring to expand school programs to serve locally-grown fresh produce in school cafeterias.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry with bipartisan support last month, though the amount funded is far less than the $10 billion President Obama had requested. Bennet, who’s in a primary fight with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is a committee member.

The Growing Farm to School Programs Act was introduced in the Senate last month. It has also been assigned to the Agriculture committee, though it has not yet been heard.

Roundtable participants – who included representatives of anti-hunger programs, school district food service directors, charitable foundations and government agencies – offered their observations on what’s working and what needs fixing.

Many said the biggest thing that needs fixing is the state’s ability to get food benefits to needy people.  The technological problems that have bedeviled the Colorado Benefits Management System, the computer system the state uses to sign people up for food stamps and other benefits, have been well-documented.

“Colorado does a poor job of getting families who are eligible onto food stamps,” complained Kathy White, program director for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy. “While I think there are good things happening in Colorado – like the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and schools working with health care providers – there’s lot of room for improvement, and first and foremost is our technology.”

Bennet acknowledged the problems caused by CBMS. He said he amended the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to direct the federal government to provide better technical assistance to states and to help states create data programs that actually work.

“This has plagued school districts, too, and there’s no reason for it,” Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent, said of the ongoing computer glitches.

Food service directors said their best-laid plans are sometimes frustrated by government regulations on commodity purchases on the one hand, and school priorities that give short shrift to lunchtime on the other.

“There’s room for improvement in the commodity program,” said Leo Lesh, director of DPS’ Department of Food and Nutrition. “I have to fit my menu to what I can buy and it shouldn’t be that way. I should be able to buy what I need.

“And we need to make meals an important part of the school day rather than a disruption to the school day. Principals who need an extra five minutes will squeeze it out of lunchtime, leaving just 20 minutes for lunch.”

Jeni Nagel of Ela Family Farms urged schools to do more to police the food choices given to children. “You can’t expect kids to choose an orange over Cocoa Pebbles,” she said. “We need to deal with the choices we give kids.”

Nagel noted that in many school kitchens, the most-used utensils are box cutters and can openers. Some school cafeterias are ill-equipped to deal with fresh produce. “There’s even resistance to selling fresh peaches because they would have to wash those peaches first,” Nagel said.

The Growing Farm to School Act would connect local farmers and schools to provide locally grown produce to schools and to give farmers a new market for their products. Concannon says having locally-grown products available encourages youngsters to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. “It has an effect,” he said. “I’ve seen it in schools from New England to California.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act also provides funding for Farm-to-School programs. Other provisions of the act include:

  • Expanding after-school meals for at-risk children
  • Connecting more eligible low-income children with school meals
  • Helping schools improve the nutritional quality of school meals
  • Establishing national nutritional standards for all food sold in schools
  • Strengthening local school wellness policies
  • Helping schools protect their food service budgets

Bennet offered another amendment to the bill to authorize the creation of “State Childhood Hunger Challenge Grants.” The grants would allow states to collaborate with other partners to target communities with a higher prevalence of child hunger.

Click here to read an Education News Colorado story about the farm-to-school movement.