Vilsack urges Congress to strengthen healthy school meal regs

Vilsack urges Congress to strengthen healthy school meal regs
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Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE is calling on Congress to not only reauthorize but also strengthen first lady Michelle Obama’s prized healthy school breakfast and lunch standards.

“This is an important opportunity for the country to reinforce the good work that was done in 2010, to expand on it, to solidify it, to institutionalize it and strengthen it,” he told more than 100 people at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday. “I’m here today to encourage Congress to get to work. Don’t take a step back. Let’s take steps forward.”

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Congress is expected to reauthorize the rule when lawmakers return from summer recess later this month.

The nation’s obesity trend — which has cost the country $190.2 billion a year and threatened national security by making almost one in three young adults unfit for military service — is slowly reversing, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) said. 

The Obama administration says kids are eating better, but recent studies have had conflicting reports.

USDA points to a May 2014 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study that found kids are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch than in 2010, before the standards kicked in; and a May 2015 report from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity that showed students are eating more nutritious foods and discarding less of their lunches under the healthier standards in the same time period.

But last week, Public Health Reports published a University of Vermont study that found students are eating slightly less fruits and vegetables since 2010, despite the mandate that requires them to take a half-cup of either fruits or vegetables with each meal.

And though USDA said 95 percent of schools are meeting the standards and school lunch revenues saw an increase nationwide of $450 million last year, the School Nutrition Association said its members are struggling financially, with fewer students participating in school meal programs.

That group has been lobbying Congress to revert back to the 2010 standard that required only 50 percent of all grains to be whole grain and leave sodium levels where they are.

Vilsack said he understands that some schools are still struggling to meet the standards, adding that it’s why USDA is encouraging states to take advantage of the $28.2 million that’s still available to help school districts implement the law.

“About $90 million was originally appropriated and about five years later $28.2 million is still unused,” he said. “Before people start criticizing, we ought to have the resources available and be fully utilizing them.”