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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Discusses Importance of Child Nutrition Reauthorization and WIC Programs
WASHINGTON, July 1, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today testified on the pending legislation to reform and reauthorize USDA's Child Nutrition Programs and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.
Below are excerpts from Secretary Vilsack's prepared testimony:
"The Administration is strongly committed to passing legislation this year that reduces child hunger and improves the quality of school meals and the health of the school environment.
"I thank Chairman Miller for his leadership on this issue. The legislation he recently introduced would achieve a number of the policy priorities of the Obama Administration. The strong letter of support from 221 Members of the House of Representatives for a robust Child Nutrition Reauthorization, along with the bipartisan Senate action and the Chairman's bill show that there is broad support for this important legislation.
"As the number of remaining legislative days continues to get smaller, I urge this Committee to continue your work and to act quickly and forcefully on this legislation in order to provide all of our children with the healthy meals that are so important to their health and education. If we are going to support our children, we must pass a strong bill this year.
"To state it simply, we are here today because school meals matter, as does the nutritional assistance provided through the WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program and in gap periods like weekends, afterschool and summer. Our schools are on the frontline of efforts to improve childhood nutrition, our collective health, and the future of our great Nation.
"The importance of school meals is underscored by the current state of the health and nutrition of our nation's children. Obesity is our fastest growing public health issue as roughly 1 of every 3 American children is overweight or obese. At the same time, lack of access to proper nutrition is not only fueling obesity, it is leading to food insecurity and hunger among our children. Meanwhile, school-age children are not eating the recommended level of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products according to a 2009 Institute of Medicine report.
"This status quo increases our nation's health care bill, it affects our ability to recruit a for the military, and most importantly it will not let us produce the generation of well-educated, healthy kids who will be competitive in the global economy of the 21st century.
"For all of these reasons, we must take steps to streamline access, improve the quality of school meals, increase participation, and work to eliminate childhood hunger in this country. Bold action with reauthorization must include the following elements:
1) Improving access to the school nutrition programs must be a priority. I'm calling on Congress to provide tools to increase participation, streamline applications, and eliminate gap periods when we know children struggle to receive the nutrition they need. The object should be to ensure – particularly in low-income communities where children are at high risk for obesity – that every child eats the food they need. I call on you to support a new program of State Hunger Challenge Grants so States can be the laboratories for successful strategies to address this problem.
We should offer grants to states and non-profit organizations to develop systems to streamline the application process. Congress should to provide USDA with the tools necessary to establish paperless application programs in school districts with very high rates of children with free and reduced price-eligible students. And, we must expand on the successes we have experienced with direct certification.
Through these reforms, I believe that we will be able to increase participation in these programs by one million children in the next five years.
2) Increasing financial support and expanding participation in School Breakfast must be part of reauthorization. On school days, almost two-thirds of children who participate in the lunch program do not participate in the school breakfast program. This reauthorization is an opportunity to reduce stigma and promote participation in the breakfast program. I call on Congress to increase the reimbursement rate for school breakfasts and combine that support with USDA-purchased foods. And, I call on K-12 organizations and States to work with USDA to aggressively promote the breakfast option.
3) Our efforts to combat hunger must continue in the summer, when more children report going hungry . Working with local governments, nonprofit organizations and community groups, USDA must continue to encourage more schools, community centers and organizations to offer summer meals and for more days. And we should expand the existing authority of the Child and Adult Care Food Program to all 50 states to provide after-school meals to at-risk kids. We should build on funding in the Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill by offering support for creative solutions in feeding children nutritious snacks and meals after school, on weekends, and during the summer.
4) But no matter how many children we reach, we do them a disservice if we are not offering them meals that help them be their best. Reauthorization must substantially improve the nutritional quality of the meals being served to our children. USDA is working as aggressively as possible to implement the Institute of Medicine recommendations to better align our meals with the Dietary Guidelines, but we also know that the improved foods will increase costs for local schools. The Institute of Medicine report showed that increases in reimbursement rates, training, school equipment, and technical assistance will be necessary to implement this package. And I am calling on Congress to provide support for these changes.
Recognizing that many schools do not have the equipment in place to improve food selections, the reauthorization should build upon the investments in equipment made by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. At the same time, we should create a credentialing program for school food service directors, and support school food service providers with resources for the critical training they need to do their jobs.
5) The reauthorization effort should ensure that all foods served in schools are healthy and nutritious. USDA must have the capacity to set standards for all the foods served and sold in schools. It does not mean the end of vending machines in schools – it just means filling them with nutritious offerings to make a healthy choice the easy choice for our nation's children. I have heard nothing but broad support for efforts to establish standards from food service professionals to the National PTA to the food industry.
6) Making sure that parents and students have correct and complete nutritional information about foods being served in schools must be part of the reauthorization effort as well. With better information and simple assessments, parents will know what is available in their child's cafeteria and can better assist their children in making the right nutritional choices.
7) Strengthening the link between local farmers and school cafeterias must also remain a priority in this legislation. Supporting farm-to-school programs will increase the amount of produce available to cafeterias and help to support local farmers by establishing regular, institutional buyers.
8) Guaranteeing the integrity of the nutrition programs with support for new technology and periodic studies also remains central to a credible reauthorization.
"The health of our nation – of our economy, our communities, and our national security – depends on the health of our children. We will not succeed if our children are not learning as they should because they are hungry, and cannot achieve their dreams because they are unhealthy. That is I want to continue to urge your hard work in passing a strong bill this year.
"I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to appear before you this morning to discuss the reauthorization of the USDA's Child Nutrition Programs and I look forward to answering any questions that you may have."
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