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Legislature embraces moving Florida's school food programs to Agriculture Department

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's proposal to house school food programs within his agency, setting up a unique change in command that he says will bring more fruits and veggies to cafeterias.

"It's a transformational move for the department," he said.

The proposal, SB 1312, moves all school food and nutrition programs from the Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Putnam deemed the transfer his top priority this session. He said his agency is better equipped to handle school food programs because of its industry connections and partnerships with the U.S. Agriculture Department, which controls the programs' purse and sets school nutrition guidelines.

Nearly every lawmaker agreed. The House approved the transfer Wednesday with a 115-1 vote. The Senate passed it 37-0 on Friday. No lawmakers spoke against the bill during debate on either floor.

"It makes sense that the Department of Education stick with education and the Department of Agriculture stick with food and nutrition," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, amid a chorus of supportive House Democrats.

Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, was the only member of the Legislature to push his "no" button. His criticism mirrored past criticism from state Board of Education member Roberto Martinez: Putnam's plan presents a conflict of interest.

"It's nothing against the new commissioner. Maybe he'll be a great commissioner," Randolph said. "I just know the old DACS (Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services), and I just don't trust DACS to look out for the best interest of the children rather than looking out for some of Big Ag."

Putnam said the proposal will actually provide more opportunities for partnerships between local farms and schools. Big agriculture corporations already have contracts with retailers, he said.

Also tucked into the bill is a requirement that any school district that does not have a plan for the care of students with severe food allergies develop one.

With legislative hurdles cleared, a pair of obstacles remain: the federal government and Gov. Rick Scott.

The federal Agriculture Department requires states wanting to run school nutrition programs outside of education departments to obtain waivers. New Jersey and Texas are the only states with the arrangement Putnam envisions for Florida.

Then there's the governor. In Scott's budget proposal, the Department of Education would maintain control of the programs. Scott is still reviewing the transfer, said spokesman Lane Wright.

The federal agency contributed $810 million to Florida's school food and nutrition programs this year, while the state put in $16 million, according to Education Department records.

There was some concern from lawmakers during committee meetings about whether a waiver could be obtained in time for the agency to adjust to the new program by the start of the new school year.

The bill's effective date was changed to Jan. 1, 2012, to provide some wiggle room.

Katie Sanders can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or ksanders@sptimes.com.

Legislature embraces moving Florida's school food programs to Agriculture Department 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 9:10pm]
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