Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, Celeb Chef Tom Colicchio Among Witnesses For House Child Nutrition Reauthorization Hearing

Full witness list and background info after the jump...
The experts scheduled to testify for the House Education & Labor Committee hearing for H.R. 5504, the legislation that will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act and dramatically improve school meals and child health, are all avid supporters of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will take center stage as the key witness on Thursday July 1, and he'll be joined by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. Also scheduled to testify: A retired Major General; the president of one of America's largest hunger action non-profits; and a representative from the health insurance industry who is a former state public health commissioner.

"I urge Congress to provide the resources that we’re going to need to support these important programs that will be able to help change our children’s futures and those after that," Mrs. Obama said last week as she launched the newly revamped President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. "If we can do something to improve the quality of food in our schools, we’re going to go a long way to affecting the futures of our children."

It was Mrs. Obama's second call for Congressional action on the reauthorization; on June 4, as she unveiled Chefs Move To Schools at a huge South Lawn launch event, Mrs. Obama called on Congress to act, too (in photo, above).

The House bill, the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act,” has bipartisan support, and was introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Ca), Chair of the House Education & Labor Committee on June 10 (he was joined by celeb chef and advocate Rachael Ray, who is featured in a new White House video). The legislation is funded at $8 billion, and has elements that will impact every school in America, in addition to the schools that provide federal funding for school meals, which feed more than 32 million children across the nation. The current legislation expires on September 30; if passed, the law would represent the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased the federal reimbursement rate for school meals. Click here for bill text [PDF]; and a fact sheet for the new legislation is here.

Secretary Vilsack is the only witness for the first panel for the hearing. He's been advocating for a robust reuathorization of the Child Nutrition Act since taking office, and has said that President Obama nominated him to lead the agriculture department after asking one question: Could Sec. Vilsack improve America's school meal programs? Sec. Vilsack's answer was, of course, yes, and for more than a year he's been advocating for expanding breakfast and after school feeding programs, federal nutrition standards, improving access to programs, training staff, and boosting farm to school sourcing, among other components that will bring America's school-based food system into the 21st century.

Chef Tom Colicchio is one of the many high-profile chefs who have tossed their toques into Mrs. Obama's ring, and he leads the second panel of witnesses. He's an internationally famous chef and judge/host of Bravo TV's Top Chef, now in its seventh season, which was shot in Washington, DC. Last week's episode featured White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass as guest judge for "Outside The Lunch Box," an episode that challenged contestants to create healthy, affordable school lunches. During the show, Colicchio said that he's been very influenced by Mrs. Obama's campaign, and that it is also personal: For two decades, Colicchio's own mother was in charge of food service at a local school when Colicchio was growing up. Colicchio was also among the high-profile chefs who joined Mrs. Obama as she launched Chefs Move To Schools at the White House on June 4. He also participated in the special harvest and picnic that followed. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Colicchio, at right; Kass has his back to camera)

Major General Paul D. Monroe, U.S. Army (Ret.), the third witness, is a member of the Executive Advisory Council for Mission: Readiness. The nonprofit, bi-partisan organization of senior retired military leaders put out a report in April 2010, titled "Too Fat To Fight," which found that a high percentage of America's young candidates for military service could not join, because they are overweight or obese. The report recommends profoundly revamping the federal feeding programs, in accordance with Mrs. Obama's goals in Let's Move!. (Download Too Fat to Fight [PDF]).

James D. Weill, the fourth witness, is president of Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), a Washington, DC-based national nonprofit organization that works with hundreds of state and local nonprofits, public agencies, and private entities to address hunger and poverty issues. FRAC has worked in an advisory capacity with the White House on Let's Move!.

Dr. Eduardo J. Sanchez, the fifth witness, is Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Before joining Blue Cross, Sanchez was the Commissioner for the Texas Department of Public Health, a position he assumed in 2001. His top two priorites as Commissioner were improving nutrition and physical activity in Texas schools; he's also a family practice physician. During her public remarks for Let's Move!, Mrs. Obama frequently cites the massive health care costs of childhood obesity, placing its economic burden on the nation at about $150 billion annually. Dr. Sanchez can testify from both sides of the fence, as a member of the health insurance industry and a public health professional.

The bill would dramatically expand access for millions of children to healthy meals year-round in schools, child care, and community based settings and for the first time, establish nutrition standards for foods sold outside of the cafeteria. It also has food safety elements, that allow recalled foods to be tracked and taken out of the food chain, and calls for farm to school sourcing.

*The full committee hearing begins at 9:15 AM EDT on Thursday, in the House Education and Labor Committee Hearing Roomat the Rayburn Building, and a livestream will be on the committee website.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama