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A Conversation with USDA Leader Audrey Rowe

Posted by Helena Rudoff, USDA Office of Communications in Food and Nutrition
Aug 03, 2016
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Audrey Rowe
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Audrey Rowe oversees the nation’s federal nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.

Audrey Rowe serves as the Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service.  Rowe oversees the nation’s 15 federal nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.

“I started my career as an elementary school teacher… and I didn’t last very long because I saw such challenges with learning and health. I saw that school policies treated kids differently based on where their community was located, so I became an advocate for low-income children and families because they often don’t have a strong voice.” – Audrey Rowe

1. How has the Food and Nutrition Service been improving child nutrition within the last few years?

The cornerstone of our efforts has been the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). It has provided a framework for improving the nutritional quality of all foods served inside schools, with the meal and snack standards a reflection of recommendations from the National Academy of Medicine.  Creating the updated standards required collaboration with nutritionists, partners, food service directors, and school cafeteria staff.  In order to have their meals be reimbursable school must plan menus and identify foods that our requirements. The HHFKA laid the foundation for the work we’ve been able to do. For example, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of schools that are purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, and therefore the number of kids who have access to those foods.

2. Why is it important to students and their communities that school meals remain accessible?

Our children need a strong and robust academic environment, including physical activity and nutritious foods that allow them to learn, focus, and remain healthy. Research is showing that schools can encourage prolonged healthy eating, positive body image, and intervene on obesity. And we’re not just providing meals: as we improve the school environment, the benefits ripple throughout the community. Part of our job is to show parents how to provide and prepare nutritious meals, teaching them not only what their children should be eating but also why. Still, for many children, healthy foods are only accessible through school meals. We recognize that ensuring all children have access to healthy choices is crucial to the future of our country; nurturing an ability to learn and taking away the worry of a rumbling stomach directly supports a child’s future.

3. Some of the exciting aspects of school meals are the farm to school and gardening programs. As students are exposed to school gardens, do they become more curious about new foods and diets?

As a result of school gardens and urban agriculture, kids are becoming more interested in fruits and vegetables. They’re actually disappointed to leave school for the summer because that’s when most garden growth happens! So more children will actually participate in summer meals programs so that they can continue to work in school gardens.

4. Do children understand the importance of healthier lifestyles and the decision to eat nutritious foods?

Children at all grade levels have become more conscious of their diets and what they feel is important to eat. Perceptions change with age, but very young students are certainly aware of the importance of the healthier foods they’re experiencing at school. When I ask classrooms why it’s important to eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, hands shoot up in the air; they all say these foods help kids to become healthy and strong, and avoid getting sick. I’ve also asked students if they have family members experiencing hypertension, diabetes, or other diet-related diseases, and again, all hands shoot up. I’ll ask, “What would help you and your family to avoid these illnesses?” They all know that a healthy diet is crucial here. Some people feel our rules are dictating what people should do – this isn’t true. We’re creating an environment where information about healthy lifestyles is available where it might not have been otherwise. It’s a choice, and we’re providing students with the ability to choose.

5. How can communities get involved in feeding students as they move into the fall and a new school year?

There needs to be a real emphasis on school meals – breakfast, lunch, and supper programs are all important in a student’s life. As the summer ends, many students will have access to school breakfast and lunch, but they might not have access to meals after school. Whether through our Child and Adult Care Food Program or one of our other initiatives, communities can participate in our afterschool feeding programs or supper programs. All afterschool programs should be providing healthy snacks or meals in the afternoon, because kids likely won’t arrive home until after 5 p.m. Additionally, schoolchildren are able to receive healthy meals five days a week but there are two days where access is limited. Ensuring that children have access to nutritious foods throughout their lives can be a community responsibility, and this promise can be delivered in both small and large ways. Once a community realizes there is an internal problem, it is able to stand up and help a child whose parents can’t be home during meal times. Kids are going hungry, but this doesn’t have to be the case. We need to talk about these problems more, recognize that they exist, and work together to find sustainable answers.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition