Jim Weill had the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with USDA Secretary Vilsack about the importance of federal nutrition programs. The complete transcript is below, or you can jump to specific sections…

Jim Weill: National School Breakfast Week starts today. Growing up, many of us learned from our parents and grandparents that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Could you talk about the importance of school breakfast?

Secretary Vilsack:
 We’ve recently done research here at USDA on the impact on children, generally, whether they are low-income or middle-income. Many families struggle every single day just to get their kids out the door, much less get them fed. Having access to a meal, like school breakfast–that does not stigmatize a young person–by having it available in the classroom, that consists of milk, whole grains and fruit, basically gives that youngster a good solid start to the day. We know from research that if children get that solid start, they will pay more attention in school, they will be less likely to arrive late to school, and they will be less likely to not go to school at all. As a result, they are more likely to perform better and, in fact, over the length of their school years, they are more likely to graduate from high school. Obviously, there is an educational achievement goal that is met with proper nutrition. There’s also health care research that suggests that youngsters who have access to a healthy breakfast are less likely to eat more than they should in other meals throughout the day, and that could potentially help to reduce the obesity epidemic that is plaguing so many of our kids today. So, whether you’re interested in academic achievement or making sure youngsters have a healthy childhood that leads to a productive adulthood, school breakfast is a linchpin to that effort.

Jim Weill:
A lot of low-income children in high-poverty schools are getting breakfast and lunch at school at no charge because of the new  Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). I really appreciate the partnership between USDA and FRAC in getting more schools adopting CEP. Can you share with our readers how successful you think CEP is?

Secretary Vilsack:
Absolutely. First of all, let me acknowledge the work that FRAC has done over the last decade to encourage and expand opportunities for youngsters to access school meals. There’s no coincidence between FRAC’s advocacy and the fact that we’ve seen 5 million more children eating school breakfast today than 10 years ago. In just the last two years, we’ve seen an increase of 110 million meals being served at school breakfast. One of the factors that is leading to that increase in school breakfast, and for that matter, school lunch participation, is a community eligibility requirement that FRAC worked so very hard to expand and to get included in The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010. Essentially, community eligibility eliminates the necessity of having youngsters take home an application to be filled out by their parents, have it returned to the school, and then put into a database to determine who is a free, who is a reduced-price, and who is a fully-paid school meals student. In school districts where there is a disproportionate amount of high-poverty kids, it doesn’t make much sense to go through that administrative process.

In doing meals through CEP, we then have a school that essentially treats everyone the same as if they were a free and reduced-price student and have access to school meals schools more easily. In 1,700 schools across the country, we are now seeing community eligibility in place; 60 percent of eligible schools are currently using this option. This means that 8 million more youngsters have access, and are more likely, to eat school breakfast and school lunch than they had before. That may explain why, in the recent past, we have seen a nine percent increase in school lunch participation and a 13 percent increase in school breakfast participation.

Beyond each of these percentages are hundreds of thousands of kids. These are kids who are going to get a nutritious meal or two at school and who will have the benefits of better results in school as well as better health outcomes.

Read FRAC’s School Breakfast reports.

Jim Weill:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for speaking at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference last week. Increasingly, this conference is attracting not just anti-hunger advocates, but health and nutrition advocates and experts. Do you see these groups working together more in other contexts to improve the well-being of low-income Americans?

Secretary Vilsack:  Absolutely, and it makes sense. The reality of the concerns and challenges faced by low-income Americans impacted by hunger and poverty affects not  just their wallets, not just their bottom line. The impact of poverty is felt in terms of educational attainment and in terms of access to quality food. The failure to have access to safe, affordable nutritious food can have a negative impact on health outcomes for children and adults. Therefore, it makes a  lot of sense for anti-poverty advocates and health care professionals, and those involved in educating our young people and those engaged in child care, to be working collaboratively to make sure the whole child, the whole person, the whole family is addressed and advocated for. Hopefully, these types of partnerships will continue to grow.

Jim Weill: At the same time that many schools have been moving toward implementing community eligibility, nearly 100,000 schools with lunch and breakfast programs have been implementing the improved school nutrition standards. How are these standards impacting children’s nutrition and health?

Secretary Vilsack:
It is very important to USDA not just to improve access to school meals programs, but also the quality of foods youngsters are eating. We studied this issue and asked experts to opine about the appropriateness of the meals that we were serving. The experts came back and very clearly said that the meals had too much sodium, too much sugar, and too much fat, and that we really needed to focus more on fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains.

With the help and direction of Congress, and FRAC’s assistance in getting the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 passed, we began the process of formulating new rules and a new approach to school menus. As a result, we have seen 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruits being consumed by our youngsters, which means they are getting more nutritious meals. We’re seeing obesity rates plateauing among young children, and especially a decline among our youngest children. We’re seeing that 70 percent of elementary students like the changes and 97 percent of the school districts across the country have embraced these standards.

We continue to work on those schools that are having a hard time implementing the standards because they don’t know how to set up the menus and/or know how to procure fruits and vegetables. With our Team Up for Success program, we are pairing schools in similar situations—perhaps in a rural area—that are having a hard time implementing the standards with a similar rural school in another state, or just even in the same state.

School nutrition is a topic we feel very strongly about. In her Let’s Move Initiative, the First Lady focuses not just on making sure kids spend 60 minutes a day being physically active, but she also focuses on calories eaten. We also have teamed up with the National Football League for our Fuel Up to Play 60 program to make sure youngsters understand – from adults whom they look up to and respect – that having a nutritious meal, eating fruits and vegetables and having access to dairy and whole grains, are things not to be avoided, but embraced.

We’re very hopeful that with FRAC’s advocacy, and your great network of anti-hunger advocates, that we can encourage members of Congress to continue down this path by reauthorizing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will give us another five years to implement the school nutrition standards. And, at that point in time, we’re going to have a generation of much healthier and more productive young people.

Jim Weill: There has been a lot of research on the harms of food insecurity, especially to children and seniors, and how helpful SNAP is in averting such harms, including bad health outcomes. What is the Administration doing to continue its efforts to reach more eligible people and to encourage access to healthier food through the program?

Secretary Vilsack: Let me start by saying I’m proud of our team at USDA for the expansion of SNAP in terms of reaching more eligible people in this country. When President Obama took office, roughly 72 percent of those eligible were participating in the program; today, that percentage is 85 percent. We have really placed an emphasis on partnerships with states, particularly lower-performing states, to express to them that it is their responsibility to make sure that there is adequate outreach to people who may need SNAP, and to encourage them to participate. I think that work is paying off.

There are still a couple of areas where we need to continue to work. One area is with our senior citizens. Seniors, for a variety of reasons, may have a hard time participating in SNAP. It may be that they think of the program as welfare – it’s not. It’s nutrition assistance. Everyone benefits when seniors have access to healthier food. For instance, when seniors eat nutritious foods, they are going to have fewer health problems. And, if they have fewer health problems, they are going to spend less health care dollars in the Medicare program, which benefits the entire country.

We at USDA are looking at ways in which we can make it a bit easier for seniors who are eligible for SNAP. The reality is that some seniors may have a hard time physically getting to an office to complete the necessary paperwork for SNAP. Let’s figure out how we might be able to make it easier, through online applications or through some other mechanism, for seniors to access information about SNAP in a convenient way.

In addition a recertification every year makes sense for a family where mom or dad may get a job, a higher paying job, or a raise, which may impact their income on a yearly basis. However, annual recertification doesn’t make sense for seniors who are living on a fixed income. Why not figure out a way for seniors to be recertified every several years?

Another area of focus for USDA is making sure that people participating in SNAP have access to nutritious foods. For example, we’ve expanded the number of farmers’ markets where SNAP benefits can be redeemed. There are now about 6,400 farmers’ markets accepting SNAP, which is a substantial increase since the time I became Secretary. We’re also working with nonprofit organizations to leverage our SNAP dollars with their dollars. Through the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, seniors on SNAP are encouraged to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables so they get the benefit of more nutritious choices.

All of this is being done to improve SNAP participation. At the same time, we also want to withstand the attacks on SNAP by making sure people understand that 80 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are senior citizens, people with severe disabilities, and people in the workforce with children. We’re working very aggressively to help adults without dependents who are able to work and want to find work – by connecting  them to employment opportunities, so they need less SNAP, if at all.

All of this is a collective, concerted effort on the part of FRAC and its network of anti-hunger advocates and USDA to make sure we reduce the level of food insecurity in this country, which is still too high. We’ve seen a reduction, but there is still work to do.

Jim Weill: Just as school meal nutrition standards have been improved, WIC standards were overhauled earlier. Can you tell us about the health impact of those WIC standards?

Secretary Vilsack:
President Obama had very specific instructions for me when he asked me to serve as USDA Secretary: make sure our nation’s children are well fed.

One of the first steps was to implement the new WIC package. We focused on creating a package that offers a diversity of fruits and vegetables for WIC participants. We know from research that it makes a difference. Millions of needy children in this country age 0 to 5 are participating in WIC and we know that giving them access to a variety of fruits and vegetables, that they may not otherwise have access to, will make a difference over the course of their life.

One of the challenges with WIC has been the way in which it is implemented. WIC moms are able to secure the package, but essentially they have very little flexibility in terms of when and how, within a given month, to access the program. The package pretty much comes in one shot, and it’s difficult to keep fruits and vegetables stored for a month. That’s why we looked at ways in which we could create greater flexibility in the WIC program in order to allow more choice. One way we can do that is by transitioning WIC from its current structure to an EBT card, similar to the SNAP program.

Congress provided $220 million for the WIC EBT transition, and we are going to work over the next four years to expand a pilot that has been quite successful in creating flexibility within the program. This will allow WIC participants to purchase portions of the package within a month so they can essentially have access to fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the entire month as opposed to the beginning or middle of the month, or whenever the WIC package is purchased. This is very consistent with all of the steps we are taking to make our nutrition programs easier and more accessible.

We have a similar effort in our summer feeding program, which is key for youngsters who are not able to access school meals when school is not in session. This created an opportunity in the president’s budget to expand an EBT system for summer meals, which is working well in our pilot project.

Whether children during the summer months, or at school, a SNAP family, or senior citizens, we are looking at comprehensive approaches to create better access to nutrition programs.