At age six, Tom Vilsack coped with his adoptive, alcoholic mother by eating. His weight ballooned. His peers made jokes. Worse, his parents stuck a picture of an obese cartoon to the refrigerator as a reminder for him — if you eat, you’ll look like this character.
About one in three American children are obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Vilsack, now the U.S. secretary of agriculture, spearheads the United States Department of Agriculture’s mission to feed healthier meals to more than 31 million of America’s children.
He believes pushing standards for fat, sugar and sodium content in school meals can teach students future healthy habits — especially for those facing low-income food budgets at home.
“We want to send a day-to-day message that the healthiest choices is the right choice,” Vilsack said.
With Congress returned from its summer recess Tuesday, the legislators face a deadline at the end of September to reauthorize child nutrition programs like the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Failing to re-up the funds won’t shut down school meal programs. But it could jeopardize the success of new healthy meal standards, he said.
“Now is not the time to roll back these standards, now is the time to commit to a future,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack shared his childhood story and spoke to members of the press at the National Press Club on Tuesday and reiterated the importance of supporting school meals with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. He was joined by American Academy of Pediatrics President Sandra Hassink and Pew Charitable Trusts Director of Child Nutrition Jessica Donze Black.
“If you’re food insecure, if you’re hungry, if you’re concerned about your image in school, you’re not going to be the learner you’re intended to be,” Vilsack said. “You won’t achieve as much, and you may not be as successful as a citizen in this country.”
He also announced Tuesday that the USDA will allot an additional $8 million for schools to implement the policies set in 2010. He said $2.6 million of that will fund standards training for employees in 19 states. Another $5.6 million of it will pay for projects that inspire children to embrace eating their fruits and veggies — like naming vegetables “x-ray carrots.”
Chartwells food service company designs fun, nutritious food options. Their programs bring chefs, registered dietitians and farm-to-school programs to 550 school districts in 38 states, said Chartwells spokeswoman Margie Saidel.
“Instead of focusing on what’s different about the meals — which kids don’t necessarily relate to — we focus on the culinary culture of the food,” Saidel said. “Students will be ready to learn and want to eat it.”
Nearly nine out of 10 people support increases in farm-to-school programs, according to a W.K. Kellogg Foundation poll released in August. These programs connect students with the food they eat. They learn where it comes from and how it grows.
Saidel said Chartwells works with a variety of wealthy and low-income schools. Each school develops a customized budget to fit their students’ and budget needs.
In the next year, Chartwells will add a new supermarket tour program for parents, she said.
“They can learn how to learn healthy food into their homes and focus on the healthier options in the supermarket,” Saidel said. “They’ll make the connection that this is also food your students are getting in school meals.”
Criticism over implementation costs and students throwing away food no longer have ground, he said. Most of those concerns manifested in the first few years of the program. Processes have smoothed and Congress needs to fund the continued progress.
“The longer we go without a reauthorization the less opportunity we have to improve the program,” Weill said.
FRAC also added new bills that Weill hopes Congress will fit into the reauthorization. They include expanding access to summer meals, offering more breakfast programs and adding a third meal to younger child daycares.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. First Lady Michelle Obama supported the idea to improve the nutrition of food in school lunches and support farm-to-school programs.
From USA Today