Senate committee approves school nutrition bill

By Whitney Burdette, Capitol reporter

The Senate Education Committee approved legislation that would lower nutritional standards on the food schools offer during declared states of emergencies.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requested Senate Bill 243 in light of the 2014 water crisis. Even after the initial do-not-use ban was lifted, students across a nine-county area missed several days of school until facilities could flush their pipes of the contaminated water. Until then, school cooks had no clean, safe water to use to prepare meals.

Larry Malone, director of policy for the governor’s office, said schools were offered MREs, meals similar to those used by combat troops, but those meals didn’t meet the state’s nutritional guidelines.

“There was an issue of keeping schools open and using MREs and a lot of superintendents didn’t feel like we could do that,” Malone told the committee. “This clarifies in a state of emergency or preparedness, that nutritional guideline requirement is waived on a temporary basis for that geographic area affected.”

Jimmy Gianato, director of the Department of Homeland Security, said the state can choose MREs from a couple of options.

“We had access during that event to two types of MRE. The first was the military version most people are familiar with,” Gianato said. “The other was a commercial version we can buy and distribute to the population during that event, which is a more normal meal a citizen would eat versus a very high-in-protein-content meal the military would eat.”

Although the state made those meals available to the schools, some county superintendents preferred to stick to the letter of the law and cancel school rather than serve meals that didn’t meet strict nutritional standards.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health, said he supports the legislation. It comes down to relaxing nutritional guidelines temporarily versus losing instructional time in the classroom, he said.

“When kids lose school time because of these emergencies, we make those critical decisions, we’re not only talking about nutrition but also about safety and educational days missed,” Gupta said. “There are a lot of broader issues when it comes to kids staying at home. Parents have to take time off of work, so it becomes an economic issue, too. Every effort ought to be taken to make sure if we can have kids in school, we have kids in school.”

Gupta said West Virginia has among the best nutritional standards in the country. Even when those standards can’t be achieved, such as in a state of emergency, officials should make an effort to get as close to those standards as possible.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, offered the only amendment to the bill. His change added a clause calling for the Department of Homeland Security to report back to the Legislature. His amendment was adopted and the committee unanimously voted to send the bill on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-5149 or whitney.burdette@dailymailwv.com. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.