A healthier future for kids

By Tom Vilsack


There are few things that should be more important to America than the health of our children. Yet an astounding 30 percent of them are overweight or obese, and last year, kids in more than 500,000 American families went without the food they needed. This means that many kids are not learning as well as they should in school because they can’t concentrate. In the long term, it threatens the safety and prosperity of our nation, as fewer 18-year-olds are fit for military service, fewer folks have the skills they need to compete in a global economy, and obese adults strain our health-care system.

Last week, Congress took action to help us combat hunger and improve nutrition nationwide, passing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. President Obama and I have been fighting for this major victory for our kids since the earliest days of the administration. Since then, first lady Michelle Obama has launched the Let’s Move! initiative to help solve childhood obesity within a generation, and we have reaffirmed our commitment to ending childhood hunger in America by 2015.

School cafeterias must be on the front lines of our effort to confront both of these challenges and build a healthier future for America’s children. Thirty-one million kids participate in USDA’s National School Lunch Program every day, and an additional 12 million eat school breakfasts. For some kids, school meals may be the only calories they consume all day.

This bill will help us make the first major changes in 30 years to serve healthier meals to America’s youngsters. We will update the nutritional standards for school meals so that they include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy — and less sodium, sugar and fat. And we will provide additional funding to schools when they meet these standards.

To ensure that these efforts are not undermined by foods from vending machines, a la carte lunch lines, and school stores, USDA will help make the healthy choice an easy choice for our kids by setting nutritional standards for all food sold in schools.

Reaching farther

We know that hunger doesn’t end when the school bell rings, and this legislation will provide more meals for at-risk children nationwide by reimbursing providers of after-school meals in all 50 states.

And the benefits of this bill go beyond the cafeteria. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act gives parents the tools they need to play a larger role in helping their kids make the right nutritional choices — requiring schools to share information about the nutritional quality of the food their kids are eating with families.

And the legislation also recognizes the importance of beginning life with good nutrition. It will make it easier for qualifying women to enroll in WIC, which puts million of America’s kids on the road to a healthy life by providing nutrition assistance to pregnant women and encouraging breastfeeding.

Many schools have already begun to make these positive changes, and the USDA is ready to implement the provisions under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. But our efforts cannot stop here. At USDA, we are working every day with parents, teachers, schools, local governments and non-profit partners to encourage kids to lead healthy, active lifestyles. We are working to improve access to healthy food in rural and urban communities that may lack a convenient supermarket. We are teaching kids about healthy foods through school and community gardens.

Our nation will not succeed if our children are not learning because they are hungry, or are not achieving because they are unhealthy.

Tom Vilsack is the U.S. secretary of agriculture. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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