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IN FOCUS: Passing a farm bill critical

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says January is a 'make or break' month for passing a Farm Bill; also discusses school lunch program flexibility.

IN FOCUS: Passing a farm bill critical
WHILE no one on Capitol Hill wants to admit that January is the make-or-break month for farm bill passage, but that's really how many see it. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told Feedstuffs that January is absolutely make or break.

"This is the month to get it done," he said during this week's episdoe of the Feedstuffs In Focus podcast. "I think that the expectation out in the countryside, and certainly the need out in the countryside is to get this done in January of this year...We've waited a long time for the predictability of the Farm Safety Net."

As reported in the Jan. 6 edition of Feedstuffs, legislators have been tight-lipped on details of the supposed deal top negotiators have reached that was scored favorably by the Congressional Budget Office.

Washington, D.C., insiders say they expect a full conference committee meeting either Wednesday or Thursday to provide one final opportunity to hash out differences in the bill that has stalled in Congress over the past two years.

It appears that nutrition program spending will attempt to strike the proper bipartisanship with $9 billion in cuts — considerably less than the $40 billion over 10 years proposed in the nutrition-only title passed by House Republicans earlier this fall.

Vilsack said that while he hadn't seen the precise details of the proposed compromise on the nutrition title, he was "encouraged by the rhetoric" coming from Agriculture Committee leaders in both the House and Senate.

"It's been focused on getting the policy right, and not being as concerned with what the number is," he explained. "We need to let the policy drive the number. The reality is that there are ways to make this program more efficient without compromising its capacity to help struggling families."

In addition to discussing Farm Bill prospects, the Secretary also talked about a recent decision at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make permanent some provisions of the federal school lunch program giving schools additional flexibility on protein and grain requirements.

The agency published a plan in the Federal Register Jan. 3, that permanently removes a maximum limit for proteins and grains in school meals. For the past two years USDA temporarily eased those meat and grain requirements, allowing schools more flexibility in serving meats and grains while still staying within calorie maximums.

USDA undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said earlier this school year that USDA made a commitment to school professionals that USDA would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning.

"We have delivered on that promise," Concannon said.

The original law says that schools can only serve an average of 2 oz. of meat per meal. That’s just three chicken nuggets for a high school student, critics are quick to point out.

Vilsack said that based on comments and feedback from school nutrition professionals and parents, USDA decided to make the program more flexible, while still holding true to the goal of improving the healthfulness of school meal offerings.

Listen in: Secretary of Agriculture discusses the Farm Bill, school meal standards, immigration reform and agricultural trade as part of the Feedstuffs In Focus podcast. Listen to the interview here.

*Feedstuffs editor Jacqui Fatka contributed to this report.

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