Reed wants more seafood to be served in schools

The federal government spends billions of dollars annually to provide healthy meals to public schools across the nation, and Rhode Island’s senior senator in Congress wants that menu expanded to include nutritious, sustainable seafood.

After COVID-19 disrupted the American domestic seafood market, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed began exploring ways to support fishermen and seafood processors, including the expansion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purchasing power.

“If you want kids to grow up healthy, we have to serve them healthy food that they’ll actually eat,” said Reed, a Jamestown resident. “Dietary guidelines recommend eating seafood two times a week, but the USDA only purchases enough seafood for about one serving per student for the entire year. That needs to change. Putting more seafood on the menu in school cafeterias in a win-win-win. It’s nutritious, cost-effective and sustainable. So, it’s good for kids, the economy and the planet, and it tastes good too.”

The USDA uses its Commodity Purchasing Program to purchase domestically produced foods for schools and food banks across the country. Historically, however, only “a small portion” of these purchases were for seafood, which is high in protein and rich in nutrients, according to Reed.

The disparity between nutrition guidelines and policies, and how they are implemented, led Reed to send a letter in December 2020 to the Government Accountability Office. He requested a study on the factors limiting USDA seafood purchases through the CPP, including for the National School Lunch Program.

In response to the request from Reed, the GAO issued a report titled “National School Lunch Program: USDA Could Enhance Assistance to States and Schools in Providing Seafood to Students.” The report found that the USDA needs to increase the amount of protein-rich seafood offerings in school lunches. It also found that the USDA purchased an average of 3.4 ounces of seafood per student per fiscal year between 2014 and 2019, which amounts to approximately three fish sticks, or one can of tuna, annually per student. That pales in comparison to the almost 14 pounds of other proteins purchased, such as poultry (137.8 ounces), beef (59 ounces), pork (14.5 ounces) and eggs (7.5 ounces), purchased on average per child per year. GAO found those USDA purchases represent about 43 chicken drumsticks, 21 beef patties, 12 slices of ham and four eggs per year.

Reed is now urging the USDA to follow through on the findings by developing a plan to provide more seafood to students.

During the school year, participating students receive nearly two-thirds of their daily calories from school meals, he wrote to Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture. “The reliance on school meals mandates that the NSLP provide healthy, well-balanced meals to ensure students receive the nutrients they need for a healthy diet. However, students participating in the NSLP may be missing out on the benefits of a balanced diet that includes nutritious and high-protein seafood.”