The aggressive and controversial standards set in 2010 by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, “if given the opportunity to do over a long period of time … will result in healthier youngsters, better achievement at school, a stronger economy and more young people to draw from in terms of public service, military and other opportunities that national service could provide,” he said at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress.
Recognizing his bold declarations were “provocative,” he explained that the Act will enhance national security by increasing the number of young adults who are physically capable of serving in the military – which is a current “deep concern” given that only one in four 19- to 24-year-olds is fit for military service.
In addition, he said, “when you are dealing with a situation where 15.8 million of our children are living in food-insecure homes and nearly 30% are obese or at risk of being obese, I think you can make the case that healthcare costs may go up or down depending on how well we deal with child nutrition.”
And finally, he noted, “76% of America’s teachers report that children come to school hungry,” which negatively impacts their ability to learn and weakens the foundation on which their careers and economic contributions are based.
Given these broad impacts of providing consistent, nutritious food to children, Vilsack called on Congress “to get back to work, as youngsters are getting back to school and reauthorize our nutrition programs” without weakening the guidelines set in 2010.
“It’s important for Congress not to take a step back. It’s important for Congress to continue the forward movement,” he said.
Countering lobbyists claims
His call to action counters those of lobbying groups that want to eliminate several controversial standards in the act, including requirements that every student take a serving a fruit or vegetable with every school meal and that all grains be whole grains.
Some lobbyists also want to halt sodium reduction requirements and allow schools to sell all meal items al la carte – a move that some argue could result in children choosing pizza every day.
Many of these proposed changes are in response to schools struggling to meet the requirements put in place in 2010 and claims that children do not like or are not eating the healthier meals.
But Vilsack said most Americans – including school children – support the changes. Specifically, he noted, 72% of parents in a recent survey suggested support for the new standards as did 70% of elementary students and 60% of high school students.
Helping struggling schools
He also noted the government has several programs and funds available to help schools struggling to meet the new standards.
“Despite the fact that over $450 million … has been put into the system as a result of reimbursement increases, we understand and appreciate at USDA that there are still some schools that are struggling,” he said. “That’s why we established a school equipment grant program to assist those schools in making a transition to being able to produce food on site.”
He also encouraged schools to use all the implementation money that came with the passage of the act.
“It is incredible to note today that $28.2 million is unspent by states from the resources that were provided when the law was initially passed. That is 28.2 million opportunities to provide assistance and help to struggling schools,” he chastised.
In addition, USDA recently created a Team Up for Success program that pairs struggling and succeeding schools so they can learn from each other.
More resources needed
Simply reinforcing the standards in the reauthorization is not enough, Vilsack said. Congress also needs to strengthen them.
He encouraged Congress to expand support for Community Eligibility Programs that allow schools to provide all students with free lunch and breakfast, which reduces administrative burdens and eliminates the stigma some children feel taking free food.
He also wants help to expand access to free meals outside the school year.
“We still face a significant delta between the number of students who are free and reduced lunch and the number of kids who benefit from a summer feeding program. Around 20 million young people participate in free and reduced lunch. About 3.5 million kids benefit from a summer feeding program,” he said.
Reflecting on the progress and continuing needs of children, Vilsack concluded that the upcoming reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act “is an important opportunity for the country to reinforce good work that was done in 2010, to expand it, to solidify it, to institutionalize it and to strength in.”