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September 23, 2009

Tom Vilsack, Real School Lunch Reformer?
Wel, well, well. USDA Chief Tom Vilsack is certainly talking the talk of school lunch reform:
When Congress updates the U.S. school lunch program, it should remove paperwork barriers to enrollment to free or reduced-price meals, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.

Vilsack told a conference on children's health it should be simpler to qualify for child nutrition programs and he mentioned "direct certification," which would add children automatically to school meals if their families are approved for other social programs.

Of course, the USDA should also go one step further and make Philly's recently rescued-from-oblivion "Universal Feeding" program, where entire schools in low-income areas are automatically enrolled in the free/reduced meal program, the nationwide standard. But the great thing about something like "direct certification" is that it would help kids who live in more economically diverse areas, and whose schools might not quality for a Universal Feeding-type program. This is definitely a good idea -- anything that reduces paperwork and eliminates the need for kids to "opt-in" to the school lunch program is a big help -- and the Reuters article above speculates that hundreds of thousands of kids would be brought into the system this way.

And I really like the sound of this next idea:

[Vilsack] suggested pilot projects to provide food when children are out of school, perhaps an electronic benefits transfer card for use in the summer.

Again, anything that increases food options for kids out of school is surely worth the effort. Hopefully, any such EBT cards would have some restrictions on them, i.e. you couldn't load up on chips and soda, but I like the idea of taking the "school lunch" program out of schools and into the community.

With industry-friendly "moderates" Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Collin Peterson now spearheading the Child Nutrition Act's reauthorization process in Congress, it's up to the USDA and the White House to provide real leadership on these issues. So it's good to hear that Vilsack is ready to make some dramatic change.

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