Remarks by The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Debra Lockwood, Chair, American Heart Association (AHA); James Arden Barnett, Jr., Rear Admiral (retired), United States Navy

By:  Thomas Vilsack
Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Location: Unknown

Remarks by The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Debra Lockwood, Chair, American Heart Association (AHA); James Arden Barnett, Jr., Rear Admiral (retired), United States Navy

SECRETARY VILSACK: Susan, thank you very much, and I just simply want to thank everyone who is joining us today.

September 30th is right around the corner. It is a significant date because it represents the deadline for action on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. We need Congress to pass a strong reauthorization of the child nutrition programs for our children and fur the future strength of our nation.

This isn't merely an issue of education or health care or moral obligation because of hunger or economic competitiveness. It is all of that, but as you will hear from retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, this is also a matter of national security. That's why MISSION: READINESS is calling on Congress to act now and send strong legislation to the President's desk before the end of this month.

When President Truman created the school lunch program more than 60 years ago, he recognized that a healthy nation depended in great part on healthy children. Hungry kids simply don't learn as well as they should, and many suffer from poor health. Poorly nourished children are at higher risk for health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Obesity accounts for about 10 percent of our nation's total health care spending.

If we want our children fully prepared for a competitive world and a global economy, we need them to be healthy, well fed, active, and well educated. That's why President Obama and I have made the health and well-being of America's children, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, a top priority. We are working to provide them with a safe, balanced, and nutritious meal at school and to encourage active lifestyles. In both the short and medium terms, congressional reauthorization of the child nutrition programs is the most important thing we can do today to tackle child hunger and child obesity. This legislation will help us combat food insecurity and raise a generation of healthier children.

Reauthorization legislation passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support at the beginning of August, and I want to acknowledge the work of the Senate and Chairwoman Lincoln, the Agriculture Committee, for making a crucial and critical down payment in battling hunger in America. Among other things, it would be the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased Federal reimbursement rates for school lunches, but the time is running out, and we need to get this legislation, a strong bill, to the President's desk by September 30th.

When completed, our hope is that a strong reauthorization bill will work towards our goal of eliminating child hunger by 2015, by reducing barriers to accessing child nutrition programs, and reducing gap periods like summer and after school when many kids don't get the nutrition they need. We hope that it will also result in increased participation in our school breakfast program because hungry students at the beginning of the day don't learn as well. We hope to substantially improve the nutritional quality of the meals being served to our children and ensure that all foods served in schools are healthy and nutritious by taking unhealthy choices from vending machines and a la carte lines, and we hope that we'll be able to upgrade cafeteria equipment and help cafeteria administrators and workers with training and support they need to do their jobs well.

At the end of the day, our goal is simple. We want the next generation of Americans to be the healthiest and best educated in our history. The health and welfare of our nation, of our economy, our national security, and our community depends on the health of these children. Passing a strong reauthorization of the USDA's child nutrition programs before September 30th will help us to take important steps towards this goal.

This is not merely an issue of education, as I said earlier, or the moral obligation that no child go hungry. It isn't necessarily making sure that our nation is economically competitive or controlling, as it will, health care costs. As I indicated, it's a matter of national security.

We have found time to find the resources and the will to help small businesses. Now is the time for us to find the will to help small children. This is a matter of national security because we need healthy young adults to serve and to protect our nation.

I am joined today by folks who can talk about the reauthorization from a variety of perspectives. Joining us, as Susan indicated, is Debra Lockwood, who is the chair of the American Heart Association, and I want to turn it over to Debra for a few comments, following which I am going to ask the Rear Admiral for his viewpoints as well.

MS. LOCKWOOD: Thank you. Good afternoon. My name is Debra Lockwood. I'm chairman of the American Heart Association's board of directors. It is a pleasure to join Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rear Admiral James Barnett for this very important discussion. Simply put, now is the time to act.

My message today is to say to you that the House of Representatives needs to give our nation's future leaders a healthy start in life by ensuring the reauthorization of Child Nutrition Act by the end of this month. This urgently needs Congress' attention. We need the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act to be law by September 30th. We likely have nine days left until Members of the House of Representatives leave town. We also only have nine days until the child nutrition programs expire, and the bill not only needs to pass the House, it needs to be on the President's desk awaiting his signature by next Thursday.

Far too many children, especially low-income children, lack the nutrition they need to be healthy and successful. Only 21 percent of children and adolescents eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight adults, increasing their risk for heart disease and stroke and other chronic illnesses. If we pass a strong well-funded child nutrition bill now, it will increase children's opportunities for healthy meals both in and out of school.

There are also important measures that will not impose significant financial burdens on schools or the Federal Government. Provisions in this law will remove junk food from school hallway vending machines and ensure that schools are implementing policies to improve school kids' nutrition and physical activity during the school day. This obviously is consistent with USDA's strategy to improve the health of America's children.

I want to praise those in the Senate, Senator Lincoln, Senator Chambliss, Majority Leader Reid, for their craft and skill in moving a strong bill through the Senate unanimously that AHA is very proud to support. We also want to praise Chairman Miller and the House Education and Labor Committee for their extraordinary work in passing a strong bill. There is a tremendous effort that has gone into the reauthorization of this law by Members of Congress, their staff, the White House, and the USDA. AHA, together with its partners in Congress, the administration, and the advocacy community, has been working for many years on some of these policy changes. We cannot afford to fail. We cannot squander the chance to do the right thing for our kids.

If Congress does not act immediately, it will likely run out of time to send a bill to the President this year. If we fail, it will mean that schools won't receive extra funding to improve meal quality. It will mean that low-nutrient, high-caloric snacks fueling the obesity epidemic will continue to be in schools, and it will mean fewer opportunities to educate kids about good nutrition and keeping active.

We all know that preventing obesity makes sense and that it needs to start with our kids. There's tremendous support for the passage of this law, not least from the First Lady who as part of her Let's Move! childhood obesity campaign, AHA is proud to be among many of the foot soldiers advocating for the passage of this law.

Again, we urge our House of Representatives to reauthorize the Child Nitration Act by the end of this month, and we thank you for the opportunity for American Heart Association to express its desire for this act to be reauthorized.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Debra, thanks very much, and, Admiral, I give you an opportunity to make a few comments.

ADMIRAL BARNETT: Mr. Secretary, thank you for having me here today, and thank you for your leadership, your team's leadership on child nutrition.

Before I graduated from the Navy, retired in 2008, one of my last jobs was serving as the deputy commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command and then also the director of Naval Education and Training in the Pentagon, and in that job, I became very interested in health, fitness, health and fitness training, and nutrition as a component of that.

Today I am representing MISSION: READINESS, and we are a group of retired generals and admirals who believe that when it comes to national security, childhood obesity is a major concern. The obesity epidemic has become so serious that more than a hundred generals and admirals -- and I think it's up to 110 now, including myself -- are releasing an open letter to Congress today, calling on Congress to pass childhood nutrition legislation as a matter of national security.

These critical programs are due to expire. They will expire, and they need to be reauthorized by the 30th of September. By the way, you can find our letter on our website at MISSIONREADINESS-dot-org, o-r-g.

So let's look at the facts. Nine million young men and women, 27 percent of all young adults in America, are simply too overweight to join the military, and this is according to the Army's own analysis. Being overweight or obese, in fact, has become the leading medical reason why young adults cannot join the military. It's not flat feet, it's not drug abuse, it's not asthma. It's being overweight.

Now, you may be able to tell from my accent that I grew up in the South; in fact, in Mississippi. Some people think it's from eating too many grits, but at any rate, where I grew up in Mississippi, now more than half of young adults are overweight or obese, and that's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Military recruiters are actually turning away otherwise excellent recruits because they're overweight. In addition, the military discharges of more than 1,200 first-term enlistees because of overweight problems are causing problems. Recruiting and training their replacement costs about $50,000 per person, so that's $60 million annually that the military in essence is having to incur.

So let's be clear. There is no single solution that can turn this around, this epidemic, but we believe that schools are a critical place to start in addressing the obesity issue. Millions of children buy breakfast, lunch, and snacks in school every day. Our research has shown that up to 40 percent of what children consume, it takes place during school hours, and that 80 percent of children who are overweight between the ages of 10 and 15 are obese by the age of 25, so school is a great place to start.

The obesity epidemic did not arrive overnight, but the rate of increase has been startling. By now, most of us have heard that childhood obesity has tripled over the last 30 days, but the new data from CDC shows an alarming increase in the last decade alone. Ten years ago, only one State had an obesity rate of over 40 percent among young adults. Now 39 States are over 40 percent, and several are over 50 percent. Individuals struggle with their weight as adults because of eating and physical activity habits built over a lifetime, and these habits only become harder to break as we mature. That's why we cannot wait. We can't really wait until the young adults reach enlistment age, when they have already developed these chronic and in some cases lifelong weight problems.

If we do it right, school can become a terrific environment for children to get the healthy meals and reduce childhood weight gain. Properly managed, a school environment can be instrumental in fostering healthy eating habits for our children.

And that's why we want Congress to enact a robust child nutrition bill that would do basically three things. First, as Ms. Lockwood said, it would get junk food and the remaining high-calorie beverages out of our schools and really allow you here at the Department of Agriculture to adopt new standards based on the latest research for food and drink sold or served in our schools. Second, it would develop programs that will improve nutrition standards, upgrade the quality of meals served in schools, and enable more children to have access to these programs and meals. And, third, it would develop new school-based strategies based, again, on research that helps parents and children adopt healthier lifelong eating and exercise habits.

Military concerns about the fitness of American children are not new. When the National School Lunch Act was first passed in 1946, as you mentioned, Mr. Secretary, it was seen as a matter of national security then, and the military came forward to support it. We recognized at that time that poor nutrition was a significant factor in reducing the pool of qualified candidates for service, and the generals noted it back then.

Our country is now facing another serious health crisis. Obesity rates threaten the overall health of America and the future strength of our military, and so we really have to act now, as we did right after World War II. We cannot afford to raise another generation of young adults where one in four is too overweight to serve their country.

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for having me here.

SECRETARY VILSACK: We appreciate the support of MISSION: READINESS and the retired admirals and generals who have seen this as a national security issue and brought it to light in that respect, and, Debra, thank you for your comments as well.

Susan, if there are questions, I sure would be happy to answer them.

MODERATOR: We'll go straight to it. We have Ellyn Ferguson from Congressional Quarterly on the line. Ellyn, good afternoon.

QUESTIONER (Congressional Quarterly): Good afternoon to you and to the Secretary and everyone else.

Mr. Secretary, two questions. One, are you essentially saying to the House, pass the Senate bill, considering the time frame that we have, and, two, is this, your call, a sign that the administration is going to be revving up pressure on the House and Congress to act on the bill?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Susan, let me answer the second question first. I think it is a priority of President Obama, of the First Lady, and certainly of mine to get a strong reauthorization bill passed before September 30th.

The President, when I was hired to do this job, the first set of instructions he gave me was to focus on the nutritional health and well-being of America's children, and I take that instruction to heart, and he has been consistent throughout the last 20 months that he'd like to see this bill passed.

Obviously, the House and the Senate have to work with each other in terms of how and under what circumstances the best bill can be passed. We're just encouraging people today to act, to get it done in whatever way, shape, or form is necessary, but to get it done, so we're not faced with a situation on September 30th of continuing under the existing reauthorization proposal.

As the Admiral pointed out and as Debra pointed out, there are risks associated with the status quo. We can't continue the status quo. We found the time and the effort and the strategy and the will to help out small businesses and small banks. I think it is time for us to spend just a day or two to try to figure out how to help children and small children of this country.

MODERATOR: Reporters, if you would like to participate in our discussion on urging Congress to pass the child nutrition bill as a matter of national security, please let us know by pressing Star/1 on your touchtone phone, and we go back to the line. We have Pamela Fessler with National Public Radio.

QUESTIONER (National Public Radio): Secretary Vilsack, hi.

I was curious why -- I mean, obviously feeding low-income children is very important to this administration. Why then is the administration willing to cut future food stamp benefits to pay for this bill, which is contrary to what a lot of the anti-hunger groups want?

SECRETARY VILSACK: It's important to point out the work that's been done today in the present as it relates to the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nitration Assistance Program. We have worked aggressively with outreach under the existing program to expand the number of people currently receiving SNAP benefits, and we have also under the Recovery Act increased SNAP benefits.

We will continue to work hard to make sure that we reach every single individual who is eligible for SNAP. Through our outreach efforts in States like Florida and Texas, we have seen a significant increase in the number of people receiving SNAP benefits from those States because we essentially worked with the State administration in those States to do a better job of outreach and education.

These numbers which are increasing rather significantly aren't simply a result of the recession. They are the result of a USDA that is aggressively focused on expanding numbers to those who have been left out of the program for far too long. That is our focus, and that ought to be our focus.

What happens in the year 2013 or 2014, we'll obviously deal with that when the time comes, but right now our focus is trying to make sure that the program that is available is available to as many people as possible.

At the same time, we also recognize that a key strategy to addressing childhood hunger and the obesity issue, which the Rear Admiral pointed out is such a weight on this country, is to make sure that we do a better job of making school breakfast accessible to youngsters who currently do not get it. It may be school meals are the only meals, the only nutritious meals that youngsters can get in certain circumstances and certain communities, so we need to do a better job of expanding access to those programs, and this bill will allow us to do that. We also need to do a better job of getting fruits and vegetables and whole grains and low-fat dairy into the meals and getting the sodium and the sugar and the fat content out of the meals and some consistent messages between what we serve in the lunch line and what we have in vending machines.

This is an extraordinarily important bill. We are very close to getting it done and getting it done in a significant way. We will look for every way we can at USDA to complement what is done by the Congress, but we need Congress to act.

ADMIRAL BARNETT: Mr. Secretary, I think you got the quotable quote on that, that the "obesity epidemic is a heavy weight on this country." That's great.

MODERATOR: We go back to our lines. Up next is Jerry Hagstrom with CongressDaily.

QUESTIONER (CongressDaily): Good morning -- or good afternoon.

I just wanted to ask, the administration originally wanted 10 billion over 10 years, a billion-dollars-a-year increase in this program. The Senate bill would only provide the 4.5 billion. That's, you know, less than half of what you originally wanted. Have you figured out that this is only you can get or all you can get, or why have you decided to support it at this time?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Jerry, what we are supporting is action by Congress now, prior to September 30th.

As I indicated, we will at USDA look for ways in which we can leverage, stretch our resources to focus on expanding access to more children, to improving the quality, the nutritional quality of these meals. The fact that we get a bill prior to September 30th and it gets signed by the President doesn't mean that we necessarily give up on looking for additional opportunities to supplement, to add to, to modify as time goes on, but what we are concerned about with the waning days of this congressional session ending, we are concerned that we'll be left with a status quo, and what the status quo has given us is far too many hungry children and far too many overweight children.

And as has been pointed out repeatedly, this is an educational issue, it's a health care issue, it's a national security issue, it's an economic competitiveness issue, and it's a moral issue, and it seems to me that given that, the significance of this issue, we need to find the time and the will to get it done before September 30th.

MODERATOR: Reporters, if you would like to ask a question of our panel, let us know by pressing Star/1 on your touchtone pad. We go back to the line. Chuck Abbott with Reuters.

QUESTIONER (Reuters): Thank you. Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.

A few days ago when you talked about the nitration bill, you essentially told a group of reporters that the House should go ahead and pass the Senate bill, and as you've indicated here today, that means cutting food stamp benefits in the out-years, but that you would take care of it in the out-years, so let's make -- just make doubly clear today, then you're saying it's okay to cut food stamp benefits in the out-years if that's -- we'll get Congress to pass a child nutrition bill. And, secondly, does that mean you'll be advocating an increase in food stamp benefits in the farm bill which will be coming up next spring?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, let's be clear about this. You know, we are willing to work with Congress to identify appropriate offsets. What we want is action before September 30th, and we are happy to work with anybody and everyone to find appropriate ways.

The Senate has spoken on this issue. They have addressed the issue in a way that garnered 60 votes, which is a very important threshold in this Congress if we are to have action. What we don't want to do is compromise what we can get today for what may or may not be available in 2013. There is no certainty and no assurance that whatever is on the books for 2013 will be on the books in 2013. Circumstances and situations change.

What we do know is if this bill passes prior to September 30th and is passed by the President, we'll have better nitration for our youngsters in schools. We'll have greater access to school breakfast now in our schools. We'll have better equipment for our schools. We'll have a better opportunity to address the hunger and obesity issues that have been addressed in this call today. We know that that will happen now. We'll have better food in the vending machines. We'll send a more consistent message. We'll have better training for school cafeteria employees. We'll have greater strength in terms of working with school districts to improve significantly the nutritional value of meals. We know that will happen now.

We also know what will happen now is a continued effort to expand SNAP outreach and education in States like Texas and Florida and California that have historically under-performed in terms of their capacity to each out to people in need. We have worked with Florida, and we have seen increases of hundreds of thousands of people on SNAP. We have worked with Texas and seen significant progress in the last six months in expanding outreach. That can be done now.

I'm focused on the present. I don't want to wait a couple of years to try to figure out how this is all going to work because, if we wait another couple of years, we'll have another couple of years of more children hungry and more children obese. We need to address this now, and I'm willing to work with the House. I'm willing to work with the Senate. I know the President is willing to work with both, but we obviously have a short period of time and a relatively few legislative days left. With a lot of work to be done in both House and Senate, we want to make sure this is a priority.

MODERATOR: We go back to our phone lines. Ellyn Ferguson is sneaking in and getting another question to be asked. Ellyn?

QUESTIONER (Congressional Quarterly): Hi. This is for the Admiral and for Ms. Lockwood. The two of you are participating in this call today. So, after it ends, what is it that your respective organizations are going to do to try and make this September 30th deadline? Is there anything additional you'll be doing?

MS. LOCKWOOD: I will speak first, if that's okay. From American Heart's perspective, we have actively placed ads in appropriate places to get our grassroots efforts in place. We will continue to provide information to Members of Congress, so that they have the facts to show that, statistically, we should be making changes in the offerings at schools and really address childhood nutrition and obesity and that it's a critical issue for our country.

Continuing to get that word out is what our job is, and we have really mobilized our grassroots efforts and will continue to do that.

ADMIRAL BARNETT: And, Ellyn, from a MISSION: READINESS standpoint, one of our major roles all along has been to make sure that the right information is to the decision-makers. That starts with our Too Fat to Fight report that came out earlier this year. Making sure that Congress has that information, we are rolling out this letter from 110 retired generals and admirals right now, so that we do see it, we cast this in the light of national security problem, and we'll continue to provide that information to both the House and the Senate as we move forward toward September 30th.

MODERATOR: We go back to our callers on the line. Tom Karst with The Packer newspaper.

QUESTIONER (The Packer): Yes, good afternoon.

Relative to the armed forces, have the recruiting efforts been meeting their goals, and does obesity have an effect on the ability of armed services to reach recruiting goals right now?

ADMIRAL BARNETT: You know, Tom, it is not affecting the ability to meet the quotas right now, and that's probably due to the economy, and that may continue for sometime, but there are some tragic circumstances that are happening today where people are showing up who want to serve, who are qualified to serve, who may have the mental and physical skills that the military needs that we're having to turn away, and we won't always have this economy. And so I'm very concerned that as things reach equilibrium and continue to improve as they have that we will not be able to get some of these people into the military who want to, and so that's at the heart of what we're seeing as really a national concern. You have to bring them in to begin with to develop them in a career-long life, and so it's a major concern to us, even though recruiting goals are actually being met right now.

MODERATOR: We have no more callers on the line. As we bring today's media conference to a close, any last words from our panel?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Susan, I just simply want to reiterate the significance and importance of this to the country, and I am hopeful that Congress understands the significance and importance of it based on what the American Heart Association, MISSION: READINESS, and other organizations and groups have done over the last 20 months to bring this to a head.

My hope is that we get a bill, a strong bill, to the President's desk before September 30th, so that we can begin the process of implementing that bill as quickly as possible.

MODERATOR: And with that, I want to thank our guests, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rear Admiral James Barnett, and American Heart Association Chair Debra Lockwood, and thank you for all of those who asked questions and on the line. Have a good afternoon.

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