Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today discussed USDA efforts to improve access to healthy foods, and outlined the need for a renewed commitment to improve childhood nutrition, which includes empowering parents to provide healthy meals for their families. In remarks at a Hy-Vee, Inc. grocery store, Secretary Vilsack noted that increasing access to healthy foods is one of USDA's top priorities.
"We must help families provide our children with healthy foods that are full of the nutrients they need," said Vilsack. "Research shows that healthy foods aren't always more expensive than less healthy options. Expanding access to affordable, healthy options and providing more information for parents will help create a generational shift to reverse the obesity crisis and protect the health of our youngest Americans."
Secretary Vilsack made two announcements today, highlighting programs in USDA's Food and Nutrition Service designed to increase access and empower families to provide healthy foods. In the first, he announced that a pilot program initiated by the USDA to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among students in the nation's poorest elementary schools resulted in 15 percent higher consumption among students in the program. The Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program is part of USDA's focus on improving consumer access to healthy food, which can help our nation combat obesity and malnutrition -- raising a healthier generation of young people.
The program, which is popular among schools, students and parents, began as a pilot in 2002 to examine the effects of providing free, fresh fruits and vegetables to students outside of regular school meals. The report released today demonstrates that when children are provided healthy fruits and vegetables as snacks, they were not only willing to try them, but the majority finished them.
Secretary Vilsack also announced the launch of the SNAP: Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program. This program expands the scope of the existing SNAP education program by providing states with additional flexibility to support targeted nutrition education and obesity prevention activities according to the needs of SNAP recipients and low-income families in their state. Under this new program, states could use the funding for a variety of activities including bringing famers markets to low income areas, developing policies for addressing food deserts in low-income areas, or educating SNAP retailers on how to stock healthier food options.
"Expanding access to nutritious food will not only empower American families to serve healthy meals to their children, but it will also help expand the demand of agricultural products," said Vilsack. "These efforts will help open new markets for famers to sell their products, create jobs, and help revitalize distressed communities."
American agriculture provides our nation with the tools we need to increase the availability, affordability and variety of nutritious food. More than 80 percent of our food supply comes from American agriculture, and American families pay less for their food at the grocery store than the people of any developed nation.
Research by USDA's Economic Research Service has found that healthy foods are often no more expensive than less-nutritious foods. Still, there are millions of American families who lack access to healthy foods due to economic or geographical barriers. Vilsack said that USDA empowers Americans to make healthier food choices by providing science-based information and advice, while expanding access to healthy food availability:
America's students now have healthier and more nutritious school meals due to improved nutrition standards implemented as a result of the historic Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
USDA is making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible for low-income families. More than 3,200 farmers markets and farm stands are now authorized to accept payment through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), an increase of nearly 100 percent since 2010.
USDA's MyPlate symbol and the resources at ChooseMyPlate.gov provide quick, easy tips for parents trying to feed their families on a budget. USDA provides tips to help parents Plan, Compare and Prepare meals that are both nutritious and budget friendly.
USDA's Know your Famer, Know Your Food initiative contributes to healthy food access through the development of strong local and regional food systems. Innovative approaches such as mobile farmers markets, late-season vegetable production in high tunnels, and regional food hubs are making fresh, local food more available to communities in need. The number of farmers markets increased by more than 67 percent in the last four years and there are now more than 220 regional food hubs in operation around the country.
USDA launched a new $5 million Farm to School grant program in 2012 to increase the amount of healthy, local food in schools. In its first year, the grants are supporting 68 projects serving nearly 2 million students.
USDA developed the Food Access Research Atlas to enable researchers, city planners, non-profit organizations and policy makers to identify areas where the availability of grocery stores and transportation create geographical barriers to accessing healthy food.