WASHINGTON – Agudath Israel of America has commended the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its efforts to meet the needs of school districts serving kosher-observant students. Over the past several months, Agudath Israel has been in discussions with the agency to explore ways to achieve this objective.

Jewish school children participate heavily in the National School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs. For decades, through an agreement with the USDA, the New York Board of Jewish Education has purchased and provided kosher food items to participating schools. In recent years, however, with the nationwide growth of Jewish education, an increasing number of schools outside of the New York area have become part of the lunch program. For these schools, shipping from New York and other logistical challenges have increased the costs of participation, ultimately diminishing their ability to access kosher items and benefit fully from the program. This led to Agudath Israel’s approach to the USDA to present the problem and seek solutions.

As a first step, the Department has announced a change to the specification for USDA Canned Tuna that requires such products purchased for the school lunch program to have kosher certification. Because there has been a shortage of “proteins” within the available kosher selections, the new requirement covering protein-rich fish is a welcome development. Also, the fact that this will be a general program requirement for all such products means that school districts across the country will be receiving them directly, thus streamlining delivery.

“These efforts will be of great potential benefit to our schools and families,” noted Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director. “It is impressive how sensitive the USDA has been to these concerns and how quickly they are moving on addressing them.” Agudath Israel and USDA will be working together in the coming months to smooth out various technical issues and to explore ways to incorporate other protein-rich kosher foods into the program.

In addition to Rabbi Cohen, the Agudath Israel team working on the issue includes Rabbi A.D. Motzen, National Director for State Relations, Agudath Israel of America; Rabbi Yitzchok Ehrman, Chief Operating Officer, Agudath Israel of Illinois; Rabbi Yitz Frank, Ohio Director, Agudath Israel of America; and Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, Director of Government Affairs, Agudath Israel of Illinois.

In recent years, Agudath Israel has worked actively on several related USDA issues. These included successfully promoting legislation, championed by Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY), that enhanced the provision of kosher foods items to food pantries and soup kitchens within The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The organization also worked with the federal agency in addressing specific kosher dietary issues implicated by the new school lunch requirements under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.