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Published March 01, 2010, 04:48 PM

Vilsack calls for speedy bill passage

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Feb. 23 called for quick passage of a child nutrition reauthorization bill that would provide funding for more children to participate in the school breakfast and lunch programs and improve the nutritional value of the foods served.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Feb. 23 called for quick passage of a child nutrition reauthorization bill that would provide funding for more children to participate in the school breakfast and lunch programs and improve the nutritional value of the foods served.

In a speech at the National Press Club, Vilsack said, “The health of our nation — of our economy, our national security, and our communities — depends on the health of our children. We will not succeed if of our children aren’t learning as they should because they are hungry, and cannot achieve their potential because they aren’t healthy.” He also called the bill “the primary legislation” behind first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign.

The Child Nutrition Act, which authorizes the school meal programs, the special nutrition program for women infants’ and children known as WIC and certain other feeding programs, normally is reauthorized every five years. It expired Sept. 30, but Congress extended for one year with plans to reauthorize it for one year. In his fiscal year 2010 budget President Obama called for a $1 billion increase in the child nutrition programs. The act is important to agriculture and farmers because the government buys billions of dollars in food each year for these programs and may change the mix of foods it buys if Congress changes the requirements of the program.

New school problems

Vilsack called on Congress to increase payments for school breakfasts and to combine that support with USDA-purchased foods to give more children the option of a healthy breakfast. Noting that many children go hungry when the school day and school year are over, Vilsack also called for the expansion of the Child and Adult Care Food Program to provide after-school meals to at-risk kids in all 50 states.

But Vilsack also noted that the problems facing school lunch are somewhat different than in 1946 when President Harry Truman started the school lunch program because some young men had been rejected for service in World War II because they did not have proper nutrition. He said a recent report showed that 75 percent of adults age 17 to 24 are not physically fit for military service and that a coalition of retired generals and admirals has formed to work toward improvements in the child nutrition programs.

Better nutrition

To provide more nutritious foods and reduce obesity, he called on Congress to increase school lunch payments to help schools purchase the whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat and fat-free dairy products, provide funding for kitchens so that schools can provide meals that meet the USDA dietary guidelines, and create a credentialing program for school food service directors. He also said USDA should be allowed to set national standards for food served in vending machines and a la carte lines in cafeterias. And he called on schools to embrace programs to buy for schools to buy food from local farmers and to plant school gardens.

Vilsack also announced that through a “Race to the Top” program USDA will provide competitive grants to governors to implement “creative and innovative approaches” to achieve Obama’s campaign promise to eliminate child hunger by 2015. He said the grants could go to states that already have reduced hunger, but that the emphasis would be on policy changes to make it easier for child nutrition programs. He did not say whether USDA could start the grants to the states through current programs or would need additional authorization and funding.

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