Cross-posted from the Huffington Post:
The United States has always prided itself on lending a helping hand to its citizens in trying times. Throughout our history, when Americans have fallen on hardship, our safety net has stepped in to provide temporary help to those who need it. When I walked into USDA on my first day in 2009, the United States was in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in our history. Record numbers of people suddenly found themselves and their families in dire circumstances without enough income to make ends meet or put food on the table. At that time of great need, millions turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help them ease their hunger.
Since Secretary Vilsack invited me to join him at USDA as Under Secretary of Food and Nutrition Consumer Services (FNCS) in 2009, not only have we helped to bring America back from the brink of a second economic depression, we have also worked to institutionalize more opportunities and pathways directed at helping states assist consumers and expand direct access to healthy and affordable food.
Seven years later, a stronger economy is helping slow and reverse the trend of rising participation in SNAP. From its peak rates during the Great Recession, as families and communities begin to rebuild, participation in SNAP has dropped by over 2 million participants—and that’s the way the program is designed.
With our tremendous reach, the federal government is charged with implementing laws in the most efficient and effective way possible while working with private, state and local entities to ensure we are addressing and responding to regional differences as needed. It truly does take a village to tackle child hunger–and the strong advocacy and voices of our partners have helped carry us as far as we’ve come.
Throughout my time as Under Secretary, I have always heard that the agencies within FNCS, the Food and Nutrition Service and the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, have a reputation among federal agencies of being good partners with states—I take great pride in that reputation. In particular, our staff across the country continues to work with schools and districts to ensure they have the tools, training and assistance they need to meet the updated healthier food standards implemented under the historic and bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The statistics show it’s working.
Today, over 97% of schools are meeting the standards and over 50 million children are benefiting from a healthier school food environment. We’re helping schools learn from one another in order to make positive strides toward providing financially sustainable healthy school environments with strong student participation.
And students are embracing the healthier meals. I keep a photo in my office of some young ladies I met in a New Orleans elementary school that had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. I had the pleasure of having lunch with these bright young students and I was so enthralled by the stories they were telling me that I wasn’t eating my lunch. Well, toward the end of the lunchtime one of the students turned to me and said “Sir, if you aren’t going to eat your broccoli, can I have it?” As I’ve visited schools across the country, I’ve seen time and time again that young people are choosing to eat healthy, whether it’s taking an extra apple from the sharing table or enthusiastically choosing locally-grown kale from the salad bar.
Under this Administration, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a program that serves about half of all babies born in the US, has undergone the first science-based food package changes in decades. Not only are these changes helping the program be more effective at preventing health related illnesses in pregnant women, infants and children, but according to the Government Accountability Office, every dollar spent on prenatal WIC participation is also saving us $3.50 in health care costs.
And, at a time where government cutbacks were prevalent, USDA committed to investing in staff and resources in FNCS to make it the most effective agency it can be, ready to serve people who need it, in the ways they need it most. We’ve invested in progressive new efforts like SNAP Employment and Training programs that seek to help participants build comprehensive skill sets and match them with the well-paying jobs they need to move off the program. We’ve rolled out digital services like SuperTracker and ChooseMyPlate.gov to reach a larger audience of people with helpful nutrition information whenever they need it. And we’ve protected taxpayer dollars by initiating aggressive new tactics to investigate illegal activity in SNAP and remove bad actors from the program, resulting in a significant reduction in trafficking.
As a state commissioner for nearly 30 years, the bulk of my career has been spent in state government. During this time, I have served as Director of State Health and Human Services departments in Maine, Oregon, and in Iowa – the latter under then-Governor Vilsack. People often ask me, now that you’re on the federal side, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned. And to that question, my response is, “Where you live makes a difference.” The truth is, we can make laws at the federal level to protect the nutrition safety net and ensure access to health foods, but whether or not that law is embraced at the local level—whether it’s fully availed by the local leaders—makes all the difference in our ability to reach consumers with the assistance they need.
In the last year of this Administration, I am committed to keeping up our work to ensure states and local partners have the tools they need to reach their constituents so that we can continue to see more of the positive changes that we’ve seen in the last seven years. We are also working to take stock of what’s working and how those programs can reach more people who really need them. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished in seven years, but our work here is far from done.
Today, we launched Part II of our two-part series on how these historic changes to our nation's nutrition programs came to be. You can catch up on Part I and read a blog from Secretary Vilsack reflecting on seven years of progress.
March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.