Friday, May 29, 2009

Let Them Eat Nothing: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Cancels Successful School Nutrition Program; A Fight On The Hill Is Brewing

The USDA is off to an audaciously bad start with revamping the child nutrition programs
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has just officially canceled the Universal Feeding Program in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But he left the dirty work to Janey Thornton, his newly appointed Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition & Consumer Services at USDA, who tried to defend the decision to the media (Thornton, in pic). The model program provided breakfast and lunch to more than 120,000 low-income area school children, and was considered a pathbreaker in feeding hungry kids because of its policy of no forms to fill out--critically important for a population that has fairly low literacy, as well as a high number of non-English speakers. The program began in 1991, in cooperation with USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, and since then, meals have been available to all students in Philadelphia-area schools if more than two-thirds of its population is living in poverty. Participation rates for feeding children in the Universal Feeding sites is almost twice the rate in non-Universal sites - between 72 and 80 percent vs. 45 percent, according to Pennsylvania state figures.

It almost goes without saying that feeding children is critically important to all kinds of President Obama's initiatives, from promoting education and reforming health care to reducing childhood obesity, as well as fulfilling the President's pledge to end child hunger. Children's nutrition is one of the biggest components of USDA's budget, and ending the Universal Feeding Program seems like a misguided effort at number crunching. Is it somehow related to the ongoing fight over budgets, and President Obama's pledge to cut the deficit by capping Ag subsidies, which Secretary Vilsack has posited as 90,000 farmers vs. 30 million hungry children--? Whatever the impetus, eliminating the Universal Feeding Program is simply bad policy, particularly now, when the economy is still precarious, unemployment is high, and more families than ever before are turning to soup kitchens and food banks for sustenance.

On May 14, Senator Arlen Specter (New D-PA), Senator Bob Casey (PA), Rep. Joe Sestak (PA) and Rep. Chakka Fatah (PA) met with Secretary Vilsack to urge him to reverse the decision to terminate the program. Rep. Sestak says Secretary Vilsack agreed to extend the program for another school year, but last Friday, Secretary Vilsack sent a letter saying the program is ending this month. Specter and Sestak plan to introduce legislation that will model school lunch programs across the country on the Universal Feeding Program.

*In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, there's even more on the debacle that children's nutrition programs may well turn into: Along with scrapping Universal Feeding, the USDA wants Philadelphia to adopt the federal plan used in New York City, which school officials there say is unworkable.

“I do not understand this,” Sen. Specter said in an interview with PI this week. “You’d think it’d be pretty hard to be against motherhood, milk, and children.”

*H/T to Tom Laskawy at Beyond Green. Read more on the building controversy, in a post by Mr. Laskawy today, here at Grist.