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Agriculture Secretary Calls for Improved Access to School Meals

On the heels of Michelle Obama's launch of her new "Let's Move" initiative to combat childhood obesity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is gearing up for the reauthorization of the $18 billion national school lunch and breakfast programs.

The goals for this reauthorization are two-fold, Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said today in a conference call: improve access to free or reduced-price meals, and improve their nutritional value.

On the issue of access, Vilsack points out that while there are 31 million students in 102,000 schools that take advantage of free or reduced-price lunches, only 11 million students in 88,000 schools also get breakfast. That's a big gap. And it persists because either students or families don't take advantage of breakfast, or their schools don't offer it. (Often, it costs schools more to provide the free meals than they receive in federal reimbursement. Vilsack has proposed a $1 billion increase.)

What's more, agriculture and education officials estimate that as many as one-third of children who may be eligible don't take advantage of these programs, for many reasons. It could be students don't like the stigma that may be attached, or the paperwork is too complicated, or families simply don't know about it.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose agency isn't directly involved in the meals program, has nonetheless been trying to break through traditional agency barriers to work on the problem of access and quality to school meals. He joined Vilsack on the call today.

Duncan said one of the biggest barriers when he was the Chicago public schools' chief executive officer was getting parents to sign up. "There' s a lot of paperwork, it's bureaucratic," he said.Yet, "we think children can't do their best academically if they're hungry."

And given the sour economy, it's likely more kids are going hungry. While officials have seen an uptick in the number of people qualifying for and taking advantage of food stamps in this down economy, Vilsack said the same uptick has not been seen in the breakfast and lunch programs.

To improve access, federal officials want to promote better use of the direct-certification process, in which families that qualify for food stamps have their children automatically enrolled in school meals programs. Although all states offer this, Mr. Vilsack said school districts are not "proficient" at maximizing this opportunity.

As for quality of school meals, Mr. Vilsack has already publicized plans to require schools to offer more nutritious options in school vending machines, which often offer hard-to-resist, and cheap, sweets to hungry youngsters.

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