TALLAHASSEE — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's hopes for wresting control of school nutrition programs got two thumbs-up from the Legislature this week, a sign his priority will reach the governor's desk.
The proposal, SB 1312/PCB SAC 1101, has passed two committees with zero "no" votes. If the support continues, Florida would join just two other states that oversee school feeding programs from the perch of agriculture agencies. The state's Department of Education currently manages school lunch, breakfast and summer meals, and Putnam's agency provides other services.
Texas and New Jersey officials vouched for their programs this week, saying their agencies' relationships with local farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture help them manage the programs with better coordination and increased visibility.
"From New Jersey's perspective, we can tell you that it's highly successful," said Douglas Fisher, New Jersey Commissioner of Agriculture. "We are constantly in the schools to encourage healthy eating."
Putnam hopes for similar benefits, saying Florida has an abundance of fruits and vegetables that should be consumed in schools but are wasted.
Still, there are reasons why the majority of states stick to a system shared by two agencies, said Judy Schaechter, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine and a member of former Gov. Charlie Crist's Council on Physical Fitness.
"There's no real channel for parents and advocates at the Department of Agriculture," she said.
Further, children aren't central to the mission of Putnam's agency, she said, echoing a point made by state Board of Education member Roberto Martinez at last month's board meeting.
An amendment added this week creates an 11-member council appointed by the commissioner to advise the agency on nutrition and obesity-prevention. But the amendment does not address what expertise council members should have, a factor that underscores the bill's lack of depth, Schaechter said.
"If we're going to move a $800 million program from one huge bureaucracy to another, I'd like to see right in the bill, 'We're going to improve nutrition in these ways,'" she said. "Concrete — with a plan."
Also at issue is a two-year-old report from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which deemed Florida's two-agency model reasonable, with several advantages. A transfer would not yield any substantial cost savings or benefits, it cautioned, and would likely result in short-term disruptions for school districts as seen in Texas and New Jersey.
Putnam's predecessor, Charles Bronson, agreed the transfer was unnecessary, according to a memo sent to OPPAGA. So did Education Commissioner Eric Smith.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, asked Putnam about the report during the bill's hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday.
Putnam's response: A lot has changed since January 2009. He credited First Lady Michelle Obama with heightening the national awareness of childhood obesity.
"This is an opportunity not to be missed," he said.
The House State Affairs Committee felt the same way, voting 18-0 Thursday on a committee bill to approve Putnam's proposal.
"It's important enough for me to put school nutrition and the nutrition of our children in a place where people care about it a lot," said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, committee chairman.
New Jersey shifted control of its school nutrition programs in 1997, said Fisher, the agriculture commissioner. He said school districts like the change, pointing to one that purchased a machine for students to squeeze their own orange juice.
Texas became the second state with this arrangement in 2003 after its education and agriculture departments requested the transfer from the governor. USDA granted Texas a waiver that must be renewed every three years, said Veronica Obregon, Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.
Some of their successes: a policy that removed fried foods from meals, and a 26 percent bump in lunches served since 2002-03.
Some Florida senators wondered Monday what good would come from passing a bill without a waiver lined up. Putnam said he sees no reason why Florida would fail to obtain an exemption as long as his agency manages federal funds responsibly and doesn't forget about nutrition education.
Gov. Rick Scott has not decided if he intends to sign the bill if it reaches his desk, according to his press office.