U.S. Ag secretary praises California school meal programs

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the Bay Area Monday, focused on ensuring students have access to healthy meals. 

The secretary’s visit comes during National Nutrition Month.

"This state understands that when youngsters are fed and fed well, the expectation is they’ll do well," said Vilsack.

The secretary also touted the Biden administration’s plan to end hunger and increase healthy eating by 2030, which includes expanding access to free healthy school meals. 

"The president and the vice president are committed to these issues of food security and nutrition security and I mention both," said Vilsack. "The key and the challenge for our children is that they’re fed and fed well."

This school year, California became the first state with a "universal meals" program, providing two free meals to all K-12 public school students. 

Vilsack was joined by First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, state superintendent Tony Thurmond and Congressman John Garamendi (R-Davis). 

The group tasted and toured food operations for the school and the West Contra Costa Unified School District. 

"Schools are one place where kids can get a meal that they need, a breakfast, we have to do that right," said Garamendi. "We’re spending gazillions of dollars on everything but our kids, so let’s feed them right." 

The district participates in the state’s "Farm to School" program. 

Schools buy produce California-grown or produced by local farms and kids can learn about the process.

"Farm to school in concert with the universal school meal initiative is a win-win for California and a model for states around the country," said Siebel Newsom. 

The visit comes as the USDA seeks public comment on major changes to make school lunches healthier. They include: 

  • Limiting sugars across weekly menus to less than 10% of calories per meal by 2027-28
  • Three 10% reductions in weekly sodium requirements over the school years 2025, 2027, 2029
  • And keeping 80% of grains offered per week, whole-grain rich

The proposal is facing pushback. 

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food works wrote this: "As schools nationwide contend with persistent supply chain, labor and financial challenges, school meal programs are struggling to successfully maintain current standards and need support, not additional, unrealistic requirements."

Asked about the opposition, Vilsack pointed to the length of the timeline and federal investments to help school make necessary changes. 

"We have a challenge relative to the health of our children," said Vilsack. "We need to find a way individually and collectively to address the overall well-being of our children."

The USDA’s public comment period on the changes ends on April 10.