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Vilsack remains committed to revamping school lunch program

by Joan Murphy | February 24, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reaffirmed his commitment Feb. 23 to revamping the school lunch program to make it easier for schools to buy healthy fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, one component of the Obama administration's proposal to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act this year.

"Reauthorization must substantially improve the nutritional quality of the meals being served to our children and play a central role in the Let's Move! campaign's effort to solve childhood obesity in a generation," Mr. Vilsack said in prepared remarks delivered at the National Press Club, here. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to better align school meals with the Dietary Guidelines, he acknowledged that the healthier diet will increase costs for local schools.

"That is why I am calling on Congress to increase the reimbursement rate for the National School Lunch Program, to help schools purchase the whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products that our children need to grow strong any healthy," he said. "Let me be clear -- our expectation is that school meals will improve as USDA issues new meal requirements that emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Any increases in the reimbursement rate must be conditioned on the fact that the increases will pay for improved quality and improved nutrition, not just the status quo," he said.

Mr. Vilsack called on Congress to include new equipment funding so that updated school kitchens can provide meals that meet the Dietary Guidelines and offer fresh fruits and vegetables, and for the new Child Nutrition Act to strengthen the link between local farmers and school cafeterias.

The United Fresh Produce Association was pleased with the message Mr. Vilsack delivered.

"Secretary Vilsack mentioned fruits and vegetables several times in his remarks at the National Press Club; it's clear our industry has an important role in the Obama administration's vision for meaningful improvements in our nation's school nutrition policy," said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh Produce Association.

"We feel strongly that United's Salad Bar in Every School initiative can be a valuable strategy in improving dietary behavior of millions of students and helping the administration reach its goals of fighting obesity and improving the health of young people across the nation," Mr. Gilmer added.