Continuing the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 would help control future healthcare costs and improve national and economic security, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.
Speaking at a Center for American Progress event, Vilsack urged Congress to reauthorize the act, which is set to expire at the end of this month.
The legislation applied new nutrition standards for schools and increased access to the free and reduced lunch program. Vilsack said it gives children healthy choices that can reduce obesity and other chronic diseases.
A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that most schools have implemented the healthier standards.
“The bottom line is the standards are being embraced,” he said. “They are making a difference.”
But a study out Tuesday by the University of Vermont says a standard set by the legislation, which requires children take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch, is wasteful. The study found schools have seen a 56% increase in food waste.
Vilsack said something needs to be done.
Military leaders have expressed concern that not enough young adults will be physically fit enough to serve the country. Children who don't get enough food are more likely to struggle academically and have trouble finding a good-paying job, he said.
The 2010 act allocated $90 million to help states implement required changes, but about $28.2 million of that hasn't been used, said Vilsack, who served for eight years as governor of Iowa.
“I'm not sure why my former colleagues in governor's offices aren't taking advantage of this,” he said.
The federal nutrition program should be strengthened by coordinating programs that help children with those that help adults into a two-generation effort. Also, programs that help feed children after school and in the summer should be improved, he said.
This is especially needed in rural areas, where transportation to meal sites may be a challenge. Those areas also have an aging population and are often struggling more economically, Vilsack said.
Benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, are also important for the country's health because they help parents start children with good habits when they are young and allow the adults to live healthier lifestyles, he said.
Political opponents should be aware that about 80% of SNAP recipients are seniors, children or working parents who just need help to buy fruits, vegetables and whole grains, he said.
“Which of those groups do you not want to help?” he asked. “Which of them are not your friends and family?”
Fraud, waste and abuse of SNAP are also at historic lows, he said.