Vilsack: Reauthorization needed to help combat childhood obesity, hunger

FEBRUARY 11—On a conference call with more than 800 foodservice professionals, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is needed to help curb obesity and end hunger. Vilsack said more than 16.5 million children live in households that have difficulty putting food on the table on a daily basis. He added that nearly a third of children are overweight or obese, a struggle Vilsack said he too had growing up.

Because of these issues, he noted reauthorization is especially important this year. Vilsack outlined several points he says need to be addressed by the bill.

One of Vilsack’s main points was increasing access to child nutrition programs at schools. He said steps need to be taken to improve access to free and reduced-priced meals at schools and said the eligibility process for those programs needs to be simplified. Vilsack said SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participation has increased but that increase has not translated to an increase in the number of children participating in free and reduced-priced meals at schools. Direct certification was one method Vilsack suggested to help, so that when a parent is signed up for a program such as SNAP, the children would automatically be enrolled in the free and reduced-meal programs at schools.

Vilsack also said breakfast participation must increase in schools. Nearly 31 million student eat lunch each day in schools, but only 11 million eat breakfast.

“We need to find innovative and creative ways to reach children during non-school days,” Vilsack added addressing the issues of offering snacks and meals to student during the summer and on the weekends. One suggestion Vilsack made was to take food to where students are during those non-school days, places like swimming pools and youth programs.

Another priority Vilsack sees for reauthorization is improving the nutritional quality of meals. He said the calories offered to students through school meals are not as healthful as they need to be, saying that many times the meals contain “empty” calories.

Vilsack also addressed so-called competitive foods and à la carte items. “We need to send a consistent message while kids are in school, and not just in the lunch lines but in à la carte and vending machines.” He said he didn’t want students to have a choice between a nutritious meal sold in school lunch lines and a less nutritious meal sold in vending machines.

The secretary acknowledged that new equipment and staff training was often a barrier to providing healthy food in schools. Vilsack said he hopes to continue with funding that was provided under the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Topics Vilsack also noted as important for reauthorization were: including physical activity during the school day, ensuring parents and children have accurate information about school meals and strengthening the farm-to-school programs.

During the call, Vilsack emphasized that although national changes will occur if the reauthorization bill is passed, individual districts and manufacturers also have a significant part to play. “We want to empower people on a local level to make decisions themselves. We are setting standards that need to be met. Now you need to meet them, but decisions made on an individual basis are your decisions.

“It isn’t just the federal government making these changes. It’s grassroots, PTAs and the children themselves.”