The ballplayer amazes. The sprinter confounds. How is it, one wonders, that these athletes have surged to such low times and high heights? What is it about them that makes this possible? There is no single answer. Genes matter, as does practice.
But there is another major factor that determines one’s fitness level: diet. “It’s extremely important,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a recent interview. “The ability to have proper nutrition…will ensure youngsters start life in a much better circumstance.”
As head of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Vilsack is in charge of many tasks, including meeting the needs of farmers and ensuring food safety. But he is also focused on two long-standing USDA goals: ending child hunger and curtailing youth obesity.
“The main goal…is to make sure that every youngster has access to quality, safe, affordable, nutritious food…whether it’s at school, whether it’s during the summer, whether it’s for a family that may be financially struggling,” Vilsack said.
Striving for Change
A former Iowa governor and 2008 presidential candidate, Vilsack was tapped for his current Cabinet position by President Barack Obama in 2008. During his tenure, Vilsack has overseen wider implementation of the School Breakfast Program, which provides both federally-subsidized and affordably-priced breakfasts to students. He has also overseen the introduction of stringent nutritional standards that have drastically altered the types of foods kids are served under that breakfast program and the National School Lunch Program, which offers the same benefits to schoolchildren.
His agenda has faced staunch opposition from school cafeteria workers, many members of Congress, and even many of the kids who are supposed to benefit from his plan. With several key tenets of the reforms up for Congressional reauthorization by September 30, Vilsack and his supporters, including First Lady Michelle Obama, have dug in for a battle that will decide what American children eat — and potentially much more.
“If you are obese, or at risk of being obese, as a young person, the chances are pretty good that you will carry that into adulthood," Vilsack said. "When you do, you’re probably going to have diabetes, or heart disease, or some other…illness that makes it likely that you will be less productive.”
Let’s begin with this question: Why are so many American kids going hungry? The United States is quite a wealthy nation, and it certainly does not lack farms. Yet in 2013, the USDA reported that nearly 16 million people under the age of 18 who resided in this country lived in so-called food-insecure homes, meaning that they were unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. Why is this the case?
“There are probably a lot of reasons for it,” Vilsack said. “One is that some of the wage levels for the jobs people do have may not be high enough to support a family. Sometimes it’s a lack of information. Also, a lot of food goes to waste because people don’t understand expiration date labeling.”
Then there is the growing obesity epidemic. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than a third of Americans 19 and under were obese.
So there are two major problems for American children that relate to their diet: hunger and obesity. At first glance, the two seem to be polar opposites. Yet it’s more complicated than that. “Sometimes a hungry child is also an obese child,” Vilsack explained, “because parents trying to stretch limited resources often look to processed food that can be filling, but not nutritious.”
The USDA aims to fight both issues with the National School Lunch Program (which feeds more than 30 million children each school day), the School Breakfast Program (which feeds more than 12 million), and weekend and summer child feeding programs, as well the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which distributes food stamps to low-income households.
The Push for Healthier Meals
In 2010, despite heavy opposition in the House of Representatives, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, a bill strongly supported by Vilsack and his Department, as well as the First Lady, who had begun her Let’s Move! campaign earlier that year with the goal of ending childhood obesity.
The act mandates that all grains served under the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program must be whole grains. It also requires schools to serve children more fruits and vegetables and less sodium than previously served during those two meals, and mandates that both meals include fewer calories than before.
In the past, school meals had been made up largely of fare that would make dieticians cringe but that kids adored: pizza made with white crust, french fries and the like. In some of the more farcical menu decisions, ketchup and tomato sauce were both designated as vegetables at one time or another.
The changes did not go without notice. Many kids rebelled, arguing that the meals tasted bad and weren’t filling. Some schoolchildren complained that the whole-grain pizza crust, “tasted like cardboard.” One group of high schoolers posted a parody music video of the popular song, “We Are Young,” on YouTube, calling it, “We Are Hungry.” (In response to criticism that the meals left students hungry, the USDA introduced some flexibility in the permitted amounts of grains and protein.) USDA data from earlier this year shows that nearly 1.5 million fewer children were eating the school lunches than had before the new rules were passed.
School cafeteria workers, initially supportive of the legislation, shifted their opinion as it became clear that the new meals were not popular with many students. A union that represents many of those workers argued that many schools were losing money because they had to pay to make meals that were only subsidized by the federal government if kids actually ate them.
However, Vilsack noted excitedly, “We are seeing greater acceptance by students [of the new meals],” and, “fruit and vegetable consumption among students is up considerably.”
Secretary of Agriculure Tom Vilsack hands a child a carton of milk at a USDA healthy foods event in 2014
Spreading the Word on Healthy Habits
The USDA and the First Lady hope to end the widespread stigma against vegetables and other nutritious foods by teaching kids and their families about what a good diet looks like, and that healthy foods can be tasty.
“We have a lot of social media efforts, we’ve created apps, we’ve created contests, we’ve got a website…and we’ve made available healthy recipes [that are also delicious],” Vilsack said. “We’ve created the myPlate tool that makes it easier for people to see what a healthy plate looks like: half the plate is fruits and vegetables, the other half is carbohydrates and protein, dairy on the side.”
Added Vilsack, “It’s important that we make sure youngsters have a good, healthy, positive start to life. To the extent that there’s anything prohibiting or interfering with that healthy start, that’s something we ought to be concerned about.”
Photos: USDA photo by Lance Cheung (lunch, Vilsack), Carolyn/Kaster/AP (Michelle Obama)