Incoming Secretary of Agriculture Sends a Signal — He Gets It

by Deb Kozikowski

School and staff

Local officials in Chicopee, Mass., celebrate School Nutrition Week.

At a news conference last week in Chicago, Tom Vilsack, President-elect Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary, said he would put “nutrition at the center of all food-assistance programs,” which anti-hunger groups are taking as a hopeful signal that he will get involved next year when Congress moves to reauthorize the nutrition title programs supporting school breakfast and lunch as well as summer nutrition programs for children.

It’s an old, sad story – the poor, in an effort to stem hunger pangs on the cheap, turn to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. Filler uppers, my grandmother used to call them. Too many starchy, belly bloaters, not enough fresh fruits and veggies – a dietary disaster that makes our most vulnerable citizens, especially poor children, look overfed when, in fact, they are malnourished.

Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels: over 30 percent of all children are considered overweight or obese. This is the first generation expected to live shorter life spans than their parents. The old adage, “you are what you eat,” is true.

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairs the committee that will draft the legislation. His will not be an easy job as the number of families in need is expected to rise sharply in the next year due to an ever-widening economic crisis. More poor families equals less money to provide food for those families and more health issues caused by poor nutrition, including developmental challenges in children and cardiovascular problems in adults.

Wholesome Wave Foundation is an organization working to make locally grown food more available to low-income mothers and seniors. They launched a program last spring in Connecticut, Massachusetts and California that doubles the value of food vouchers used at farmers markets. It’s a great example of rural-urban partnering with a little push from a terrific organization led by Michel Nischan, Connecticut chef and president of Wholesome Wave.

With the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children Act set to be reauthorized in 2009, public health advocates are actively seeking that stricter standards be implemented for school breakfast and lunch programs based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies.

My mother was a school nutrition supervisor during the Reagan years and I can still hear her vividly colorful response to the opinion that ketchup was a vegetable. Nutrition standards for school meals were not established until 1994, and public health advocates say those standards have failed to keep up with scientific research. According to an Agriculture Department study those criticisms are valid.

Another recent study indicated that traditional nutrition education practices have failed. It doesn’t take a national study to determine why – what our schools need is an innovative approach to nutrition education including student gardens and family food projects like one proposed in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where School Nutrition Director Joanne Lennon hopes to start an after-school program that includes having children prepare healthy snacks with recipe cards they can take home to share with their parents and other family members. Hands-on learning is fun and effective – a little creativity will go a long way to turning around the failure of our nutrition education programs.

The link between hunger and obesity can be confusing and complex. In November of 2004, a paper was released summarizing a one-day roundtable that brought together close to 50 researchers, national anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates and government agency representatives to exchange information and strategies about the connection between food security and obesity. I think you’ll appreciate the challenge we face as a nation after reading even a few pages of The Proceedings of the Roundtable on Understanding the Paradox of Hunger and Obesity.

Tom Vilsack has told us that he gets it, and soon he’ll have the opportunity to get it done.

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3 Responses to “Incoming Secretary of Agriculture Sends a Signal — He Gets It”

  1. […] Abd Hamid Mat Sain,MD wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptAt a news conference last week in Chicago, Tom Vilsack, President-elect Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary, said he would put “nutrition at the center of all food-assistance programs,” which anti-hunger groups are taking as a … […]

  2. Another good post on achieving our goals for a healthier America. 

  3. Vilsack is not the best   choice that could have been made.  Not only are his positions questionable.  In a my personal case, he inappropriately intervened in  a civil case in the past as  a sitting Governor.

    Dixie Burkhart
    Facts Don’t Matter

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