TALLAHASSEE — Call it a food fight.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam wants control over school lunch and breakfast programs currently managed by the state Department of Education.
Educators should focus on educating, and fruit and veggie experts should take on Florida's childhood obesity crisis, he said.
Putnam says a transfer would lead to better efficiencies and outcomes. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is better suited to administer federal school nutrition programs because of its relationships with farmers and producers across the state, he said.
Further, Putnam wants to salvage less-than-perfect and excess food and divert it to food banks and school systems.
"What a shame it is for it to end up in a landfill or as animal feed when we have so many needs in our own society," he said last month before the Florida School Nutrition Association, which welcomed him with a standing ovation and applauded the plan.
But on Tuesday, Putnam brought the issue before the state Board of Education, where some members aren't ready to fork over control. Roberto Martinez of Coral Gables said Putnam's idea for transferring the school nutrition program is bad policy riddled with concerns over conflict of interest.
"It's the mission of the Department of Agriculture to protect the agriculture industry. It's the mission of the Department of Education to protect children," he said. "Inherent in your bill is a conflict."
Martinez was the most outspoken opponent, though he said he voted for Putnam and respected him.
Putnam said Florida should follow the lead of Texas and New Jersey, states that have transferred school nutrition programs from education departments. But Martinez said those changes occurred amid different circumstances, as those states' education leaders did not want to manage school food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also apprehensive. The department has said Florida would need a federal waiver to administer this program outside of the Department of Education.
Putnam said he has spoken with senior USDA officials, and they would grant a transfer if it meets certain criteria: a commitment to food education and saving money.
John Padget, a Key West board member who called for a ban on chocolate milk last year, said he would support the move as long as it abided by the "gold standard" for food and beverages on school grounds set by the Institute of Medicine.
"I will support all efforts to reach that objective," he said.
After his election in November, Putnam asked the board to halt its decision to ban high-sugar drinks at schools, something members had been working on for several years, to "allow time for a complete approach to building a heathier generation of Floridians."
Putnam said Tuesday that some dairy vendors, for example, are already lowering fat and sugar counts in their products without any state regulation.
Board member Kathleen Shanahan from Tampa suggested Putnam not leave the Department of Education completely out of the loop on school nutrition. Perhaps, she said, his department could offer quarterly reports detailing his work to reduce calorie counts.
Putnam's proposal can only be enacted after approval from the Legislature.
Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, is the sponsor of the "Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives Act" (SB 1312), which has not been debated in committee. A House bill has not been filed.
Two weeks into the session, Putnam isn't worried about his bill's chances of being heard.
"We've got plenty of time to have a bill up and out of both chambers," said Sterling Ivey, Putnam's spokesman.
Putnam touts wide-ranging support from groups such as the United Way of Florida, Palm Beach County Community Food Alliance, the American Heart Association's advocacy director, and Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia, among others.
Katie Sanders can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]