Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will seek to aggressively take on the twin problems of obesity and hunger in the reauthorization of child nutrition programs.
In a conference call with school foodservice officials and other industry and consumer representatives on Feb. 10, Vilsack said 16.5 million children live in households that have trouble putting food on the table every day. Those kids are helped by federal school breakfast, school lunch and summer feeding programs.
Vilsack praised the âLetâs Moveâ initiative introduced Feb. 9 by first lady Michelle Obama, which is focused on trying to stem the rise of childhood obesity.
Today, Vilsack said about a third of children are obese or overweight, which can cause greater health care costs in later years, adding that school nutrition will be an emphasis for the USDA.
National security is also a component of nutrition programs Vilsack said.
âFew folks realize that our nutrition programs had their beginnings shortly after World War II, when the leaders of our country understood the importance of investing in good nutrition and to insure that the country would never want for healthy and strong children,â he said.
President Obama has budgeted an additional $1 billion per year for child nutrition programs over the next 10 years, he said.
Among the administrationâs priorities, Vilsack said, substantial resources should be dedicated to improving access to the school nutrition program. âWe believe there should be an effort to simplify the application process and increase direct certification,â he said.
Additionally, he said he hopes for a robust increase in the participation level for school breakfast programs.
In addition, Vilsack said there should be a concerted effort in school nutrition act reauthorization to address the nutritional quality of the food served to kids.
Too much sugar and fat are part of school meals now, he said, while far too little fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread and low-fat dairy products are incorporated.
Vilsack said the administration believes there should be a continuation of resources available by the stimulus bill last year for foodservice training and the purchase of kitchen equipment.
Whatâs more, he said the agency is looking for innovative and creative ways to deliver meals to kids on nonschool days.
Vilsack also said the administration wants a consistent nutrition message while the kidsâ are in school, and he said that means taking a closer look at food in the a la carte line and in the vending machines.
In addition, Vilsack said USDA is continuing to promote the link between local farmers and the school cafeterias.
âWe want to make sure the technology that is necessary is available for schools and that the reimbursement rate is appropriate,â he said.
The USDA has a program called âHealthier U.S. Schools Challenge,â and Vilsack said the agency hopes to double the number of participating schools from the current 600 level to 1,200 schools.
Vilsack will speak at the National Press Club on Feb. 23 to highlight administration priorities for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.