Officials envision broader nutrition program

Agency heads say they will work together to develop a comprehensive approach toward improving school meals and reducing child obesity.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Friday they and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have pledged to work together to develop a comprehensive approach toward improving school nutrition and reducing child obesity.

"This is not just a nutrition program. It is an education and health program," Vilsack said, following a meeting with education and school nutrition groups on the reauthorization of child nutrition programs expected next year.

Duncan said the subsidized school meals programs, which serve 31 million children, have become even more important during the recession because some children "get two to three meals a day in school."

The child nutrition programs are on a five-year authorization cycle that expired Sept. 30. Congress reauthorized the programs for a year and plans for a full reauthorization next year. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has scheduled the first hearing on reauthorization Nov. 17, when Vilsack is slated to testify. In his fiscal 2010 budget request, President Obama proposed an additional $1 billion per year to feed more children and improve meals.

Vilsack said the Obama administration would propose making the process for applying for reduced-price and free meals easier. Improving the quality of food is also a priority. A recent Institute of Medicine study showed that "children eat too much salt and sugar and too many empty calories in school meals," Duncan said, adding he would consider making nutrition and exercise part of the criteria for awarding competitive grants to the schools.

Education and nutrition leaders said Vilsack and Duncan promised to continue to meet with the group as they develop their recommendations to lawmakers.

Barbara Nissel, the supervisor for food services at the Great Valley School District in Malvern, Pa., said the vendors who provide school meals will not make changes in food until school districts tell vendors they will not buy foods of poor nutritional quality, and that school officials cannot apply that pressure until they have support from federal officials and parents.

Barbara Greene, director of school health programs for the National School Boards Association, said the process of improving school diets might take a while. Despite years of anti-smoking campaigns, not all schools are tobacco-free, Greene noted, because teachers are still allowed to smoke on the grounds.