USDA allocates $8M for schools struggling to make healthier meals

USDA allocates $8M for schools struggling to make healthier meals
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The Obama administration is allocating an additional $8 million to help schools that are still struggling to meet first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaFormer patients accuse ex-Fox News medical pundit of sexual exploitation Obama attends UNC-Duke basketball game Obama introduces himself as 'Michelle's husband' at leadership forum MORE's prized nutrition standards.

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 announced the additional funding for the department’s Team Up Program while speaking at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

State agencies, Vilsack said, will receive $2.6 million for training programs to help school districts meet new professional standards for cafeteria staff that took effect on July 1. The remaining $5.6 million will go to support the department’s Smarter Lunchrooms strategies effort, with up to $350,000 going to help states fund research-based ideas to increase participation in school meal programs.

Though 95 percent of schools are reportedly meeting the nutrition standards required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the School Nutrition Association claims its members are struggling with declining student participation in school meal programs. The group has been lobbying Congress to roll back some of the provisions of the law, which is due to be reauthorized later this month.

Vilsack said he’s not convinced that the healthier standards have caused participation rates to go down.

“The reality is school breakfast participation is up,” he said. “We’re now seeing 13 million school breakfast meals being served a day and we know how important that first meal of the day can be.”

Participation in free and reduced school lunch programs, Vilsack said, is up, too.

“What’s down is paid lunch and that didn’t start with the implementation of the standards,” he said. “That started a few years before the standards were enacted and a large part of that I suspect is because of the economic realities that we face.”

As lawmakers return from summer recess, Vilsack has been calling on Congress to not only reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but also strengthen it. 

“It’s important for Congress to find a way to provide for reauthorization without taking a step back, for Congress to continue the commitment it made in 2010 to provide a brighter and better future for our children,” he said. “I’m confident that if they are able to do that, if they are able to find a way to reauthorize, to provide additional resources, to do the right thing by this law, it will do the right thing for our children, and in turn we’ll have a generation of healthier, happier kids.”

On Tuesday, Jessica Donze Black, director of child nutrition at The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Sandra Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, joined Vilsack in stressing the need for lawmakers to move forward not backwards with implementing healthier school meal standards. The event came a week after the secretary delivered similar remarks at the Center for American Progress.