National Press Club

Vilsack urges Congress to reauthorize Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

September 9, 2015 | By Louise Walsh |

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discusses the Obama administration's plan to battle persistent hunger through school nutrition programs at a National Press Club Newsmaker.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discusses the Obama administration's plan to battle persistent hunger through school nutrition programs at a National Press Club Newsmaker.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

“Now is not the time to roll back [child nutrition] standards but to continue our forward movement,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday at the National Press Club. Calling on Congress to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Vilsack noted that poor nutrition, food insecurity, obesity and overweight not only impact our children but threaten our economic competitiveness and national security.
“If admirals and generals were in this room,” he said, they would tell you their concern that only 25 percent of young people are “fit for service.” On competing globally, “If you’re food-insecure or hungry, you won’t be as productive as you could be.”

Vilsack spoke at a news conference following two child health experts: Dr. Sandra Hassink, pediatrician and president of the American Academy for Pediatrics, and Jessica Donze Black, director of child nutrition at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We have an obligation to ensure schools provide children with nutritional foods,” Hassink said, noting a significant increase in schools serving fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and appropriate amounts of sodium and sugar in these meals. “Chronic diseases, their antecedents, begin in childhood: vascular disease, diabetes,” she added. “One in five children live in households where food is scarce.”

Black added that students now have “healthy [food] options every day, not just in exceptional schools. Multiple studies show that children’s eating habits are changing for the better. More students are choosing fruits and vegetables.”

Vilsack rebuffed critics who complain that these nutritional standards are too difficult, too expensive or unpopular. He cited a 95 percent acceptance rate in schools and dismissed a Vermont study showing low participation because it was based on only two schools He said 13 million breakfasts are served daily; the number of free and reduced-price lunch meals is increasing; 30 million children are in the food program and 21 million of them have free and reduced-price lunches. The summer-feeding program is also expanding. “The reality is that $450 million more is going into the system today,” Vilsack said. However, of $90 million provided earlier, $28 million is still unspent in the states. More than $8 million, he announced, will go to 19 agencies in states to train and educate cafeteria personnel in nutrition and develop smarter strategies to help children make healthy food choices.

“We’ve done polling in Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi and found consistent levels of support for updated nutritional standards [including for snack food],” Black said, in response to a reporter’s question about resistance from the South.
A new “Team Up for School Nutrition Success” program pairs successful rural schools with struggling ones. Initial reports, Vilsack said, indicate the program is working: “We’re providing up-to-date information so every school has a path to success.”
The Secretary cited his experience as a foster child in a troubled home who dealt with problems by overeating. He understands how difficult it is for children to improve their diets and the real challenges many schools face. However, he said, “When did we become a country where something is too tough to do?”