September is National Childhood Obesity Month, a major topic for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency’s program HealthierUS School Challenge: Smarter Lunchrooms (HUSSC: SL) takes aim against childhood obesity by helping more students across the country gain access to fresh, wholesome foods. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the USDA is especially focused on children living in food insecure homes, or households that can’t afford to provide enough food for all members of the family every day.
“Unfortunately, many students don’t get adequate nutrition due to family circumstances or situations,” Vilsack told TFK. “Seventeen million children in school today are living in food insecure homes.”
According to the Food Research and Action Center, low-income neighborhoods typically lack access to full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets where a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables are sold. Additionally, fresh foods tend to be more expensive. Households with tight budgets may buy cheaper food products, which tend to be processed and less healthy. Without steady access to nutritious food options, kids can develop health issues.
“Youngsters can get chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart issues,” Vilsack says. He adds that these conditions can make kids less productive, and increase health-care costs for their parents.
Making Better School Meals
Millions of children in the U.S. depend on meals provided by their schools. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 31 million children ate school lunches, and 12.5 million ate school breakfasts. HUSSC:SL, which is voluntary, aims to make the most out of school meals. It recognizes schools that have enrolled in Team Nutrition, a USDA program that helps schools prepare healthy meals and promote nutrition and physical education.
There are four levels of Team Nutrition recognition: bronze, silver, gold, and the gold award of distinction. For each level, schools must complete the Smarter Lunchrooms Self-Assessment Scorecard. This checklist asks schools to consider everything from access to low-fat white milk to how their lunch menus are designed. To qualify for bronze, schools must offer at least 30 items on the checklist. Silver or gold applicants must offer 50 items, while the highest level, gold distinction, must offer 70. Schools that achieve each standard may receive USDA grants and are added to a list of winners on Team Nutrition’s website.
Vilsack says that before he became USDA Secretary in 2009, only 100 schools qualified for Team Nutrition recognition. Since then, many schools have made changes to their menus and education programs. Now more than 6,000 schools nationwide have earned recognition.
The USDA is not alone in this cause. “First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign has also helped,” Vilsack says. “They’ve worked in conjunction with the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge to spread the message.”