Working to improve nutrition in schools

May 15, 2013

First lady Michelle Obama visited the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) earlier this month and praised the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the 2010 law designed to make school lunches more nutritious. Audrey Rowe, the administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), oversees federal nutrition assistance and education programs, including the 2010 law. Rowe spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What motivated you to follow a career focused on human services?

Credit: USDA, Food and Nutrition Service
Credit: USDA, Food and Nutrition Service

A. Three people really influenced me. One was Bobby Kennedy. I was home from college and in a tutorial program, and he came through and talked about public service. The way in which he talked about it and his commitment made a big impression on me. I initially went to work for the National Welfare Rights Organization and worked for George Wiley, a strong advocate for good public policy related to low-income people, particularly welfare moms and their children. I started to learn how advocacy could influence public-policy development and programs. Then I went to work for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund and truly learned the importance of not only the advocacy side of things, but how policy is written. The more I was engaged working on policy issues around children and families, the more I was hooked.

What do you consider to be the top goals for the agency?

One of our major goals is implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. A second goal is strengthening our ability to promote healthy eating and lifestyles in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There’s a lot of discussion about the SNAP program and the kinds of food the participants buy. When I look at the research, I find that it's not very different than what the average person buys, but clearly we could do more to help SNAP participants think about and have access to healthy foods. A third goal is the continued improvement of program integrity, fiscal management and leveraging of resources.

What are you doing to ensure implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act?

Once the legislation was passed, we proposed rules for the school meals program and received over 132,000 comments from school food service directors, health professionals, parents and students.  When we issued the final rules, they needed to be carried out and it was important to be out there talking to the schools, traveling around the country and listening to the challenges people were facing. We quickly realized that there was one provision involving our meat protein rules that presented the greatest challenge, so we allowed some flexibility. Having worked at the state level, I understand what it means when a federal policy comes down and you're trying to implement it and it's not working for you. It can be frustrating not being able to get some flexibility.

Are budget cuts affecting your agency and the services you are able to provide?

At the beginning of this fiscal year, we started having conversations about “what if” scenarios. We are looking at our budget as an enterprise budget, not just as a division budget. We’ve cut back on travel and reallocated those resources to technical support and implementation of program integrity. In terms of our staffing, we are at 2003 levels right now and I can honestly say people are feeling the stress within the agency. However, this agency has such an incredible commitment to our mission. People just take on the additional work that is necessary to get to the outcomes we are looking for. But we've had to make some hard choices.

Has anything in your role as the administrator surprised you?

We are in a fiscal climate where managing and deploying our resources at the same time our program was growing required lots of long days, hard meetings and hard decisions. We wanted to continue to make sure we were delivering customer service and being accountable for what we did. I assumed that I would be more engaged on the policy side, but I’m probably much more engaged in day-to-day operations and working with our chief operating officer and the management team. I’m much more of a hands-on manager, so rolling up my sleeves, getting down to the nitty-gritty and making things happen is what makes the job exciting for me.

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