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Secretary Vilsack Meets with Teachers, Parents, Kids in Knoxville for National School Lunch Week

Secretary Vilsack stopped in Knoxville, Iowa, at a Healthier US School Challenge Gold Award school on Monday of National School Lunch Week for a roundtable discussion with school administrators, local, state and federal nutrition program staff, teachers, parents and students representing three schools in the district about improving nutrition in schools and the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization efforts.

“The first thing President Obama said to me when he offered me the job as Secretary was that he expected me to make sure our children were getting nutritious food in school,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack heard from fifth grader Vicki Adrian that she’s interested in getting more whole grains into school meals, and high school students Jenna Harms and Kirk Gannon suggested that kids might balk at first about being offered healthier choices, but once they get used to the food, they’ll appreciate it.


Miss Iowa, Anne Michael Langguth, was at the roundtable because one of her projects this year during her reign is to highlight healthy lifestyles. She impressed upon the Secretary that helping students understand why the schools are choosing healthier foods will make the changes easier to accept and appreciate.

Principals from Knoxville’s West, Northstar and East Elementary schools gave examples of how they were improving nutrition and physical activity in classes and how they would like to do more.   They remarked that several education efforts, such as the seatbelt campaign, had started with children and spread to adults, and the idea of making healthier food choices could follow that path.  Child Nutrition Administrators from the school district, state and federal levels contributed ideas about direct certification, lunch price changes, universal free breakfasts, and cross-program eligibility to help remove participation barriers.

Two area chefs who have helped the Iowa Department of Education staff with Team Nutrition grant work were at the roundtable.  Benjamin Whitmore and Ephraim Malag,  President and Vice President of the Iowa chapter of the American Culinary Federation, suggested increased use of fresh produce from local farmers could help interest students in healthier meals. The chefs also offered a taste test for students and guests at lunchtime, featuring slices of an Apple Chicken Salad Wrap, starring Iowa apples, pumpkin seeds and edamame.

Students escorted their guests into the cafeteria after the roundtable for lunch, where they enjoyed baked chicken nuggets with whole grain coating, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, white cake with dried cherry sauce, and a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at a “choice bar.”

Secretary Vilsack enjoys a nutritious school lunch with students in Knoxville, Iowa

Secretary Vilsack enjoys a nutritious school lunch with students in Knoxville, Iowa

USDA launches National Institute of Food and Agriculture and a New Era in Agricultural Science

Today we are formally launching a new enterprise in USDA science, a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  NIFA will be a real agent of transformation in how we do science at USDA, not just in this new agency, but across the board.  As I reflect on this pivotal moment for USDA science, I am reminded of another transformative episode in USDA history:  the Morrill Act of 1862 that created the land-grant university system that has been the scaffold for building the research enterprise we have today.

Most of us know the basic history of the Morrill Act – passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862 to establish land-grant universities “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”  The 15 years it took to pass this Act, represent the steadfast political will and tremendous commitment from all the stakeholders for American agriculture, who recognized the importance in creating the land-grant system.  In 1862’s agrarian society, the land-grant universities were instrumental in developing new technologies and also putting those technologies into practice by farmers.  This allowed us to improve our agricultural productivity and establish ourselves as leaders in a global economy.

Today, we need to continue to focus on improving agriculture productivity – but we see a broader range of challenges we have the capability to solve: sustainability of our natural resources, energy independence, child health, food safety, and global hunger and food security.  In launching NIFA today, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack are following Lincoln’s example and putting science at the forefront to create a better world.Secretary Vilsack often refers to the USDA as an “every day, every way” department.  One way in which USDA is working to solve every day problems that American citizens face is through agricultural science.  I am excited to say that right now we have a great opportunity to not only transform the way we approach science, but also to transform how we apply that science to improve the nation’s, and even the world’s, quality of life.

There are three keys to this transformation:  We will frame our issues in terms of big, bold challenges that require us to enlarge the scope of our work; we’ll be working on large projects where we see great potential for breakthroughs on a scale we haven’t imagined before; and we’ll pick research where we know the impact on human health and wellbeing can be tangible and meaningful.  In order to ensure we are on track and setting appropriate research priorities using these principles, I have begun a top-to-bottom review of all USDA science assets.

NIFA will work with the best and brightest scientists to find innovative solutions to global problems.  With a timely, integrated approach and collaboration with other federal agencies, NIFA will also serve as a vital contributor in science policy decision-making.  In a show of support for NIFA, officials from the White House, Departments of Energy and State, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration will be attending our launch event today with Secretary Vilsack.  I encourage you to watch the webcast of today’s event to learn how NIFA will work with these federal science partners to leverage our research investment to achieve maximum impact.

While the focus today was on launching NIFA, my commitment is to transform science at USDA more broadly and more systematically to deliver results to the American people.  I believe it is important that we refocus our science resources in ways that can bring fundamental change to the way we address some of the most vexing of society’s problems.  NIFA’s structure, for example, will be centered around problem-specific scientific disciplines, which allows us to better identify the research needed to yield scientific breakthroughs.  I see five key priority areas in which NIFA will focus significant resources to enhance agricultural sustainable production and global competitiveness:

·         Support for new science to boost U.S. agricultural production and improve the global capacity to meet the growing demand for food, will allow us to address global food security and hunger facing many vulnerable populations around the world.

·         NIFA will help fund the creation of scientific information that producers need to plan and make decisions to adapt to changing environments caused by climate change.

·         In support of President Obama’s goal of energy independence, NIFA will work to develop and sustainable energy source through biofuels, biomass and bio-based products research.

·         By ensuring that nutritious foods are affordable and available and that families are able to make informed, science-based decisions about their health, NIFA will work to combat childhood obesity.

·        NIFA’s support of new research of microbial resistance and development of new food processing technologies will help ensure that American’s have access to a safe food supply.

Agricultural science lays the foundation to solving your everyday problems, but in order to realize those benefits we will need that steadfast will and commitment. Today was a groundbreaking day for all of us at USDA as we refocus our science resources and efforts.  From agricultural production, nutrition and food safety to energy independence and the sustainability of our natural resources, I am confident that NIFA’s investment in science will help secure America’s future.

Rajiv Shah,

USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics

Recovery Act Funds Upgrade Berlin Wastewater Treatment Systems

USDA Rural Development announced on Friday that $20.6 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding will be provided to the Town of Berlin and to the Worcester County Commissioners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to help upgrade two wastewater treatment systems.

Jacqueline Ponti-Lazaruk Assistant Administrator, Water and Environmental Programs for USDA Rural Development during a ceremonial groundbreaking

Jacqueline Ponti-Lazaruk Assistant Administrator, Water and Environmental Programs for USDA Rural Development during a ceremonial groundbreaking

“The Recovery Act is putting people back to work like Mike Dale, helping them to provide for their children’s education and a home for their family,” said Jacqueline Ponti-Lazaruk Assistant Administrator, Water and Environmental Programs for USDA Rural Development during a ceremonial groundbreaking. “This wastewater treatment project in Berlin is an example of how the Recovery Act is not only creating jobs, but is also protecting the environment and providing much-needed infrastructure improvements for the residents for years to come.”

Shovel ready projects

Shovel ready projects

The Assistant Administrator spoke on behalf of Rural Development Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager. Dale operated heavy equipment for nearly 10 years before he was laid off in the summer of 2008 due to the downturn in the economy. He’s now back to work full-time as a construction worker with Bearing Construction at Bottle Branch Road in Berlin. Bearing started working on the upgrade and expansion of the wastewater treatment project on June 17, 2009. The upgrades and expansion to the Berlin wastewater treatment system are necessary to comply with more stringent environmental regulations and to prepare the Town for expected growth and development.

The project is expected to cost $16 million and is being funded in partnership with state and federal funding; a USDA Rural Development low-interest loan in the amount of $5,988,000 and USDA grant $5,828,217. The Maryland Department of the Environment is providing a $1.5 million grant, and the Department of Housing and Community Development is providing $700,000 through the Community Development Block Grant program. $2 million towards the project is provided by the Town. Jack Tarburton, USDA Rural Development State Director also highlighted $8.8 million in funding provided to Worcester County Commissioners for improvements to the Mystic Harbour wastewater treatment plant.

“Rural Development understands the unique challenges that municipalities and county governments face to maintain and operate wastewater treatment systems,” said Tarburton. “USDA’s water and environmental programs are designed to help make the process easy to deal with and affordable for the entire community.”

Merrigan on Promoting Local and Regional Food Systems

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative kickoff week culminated at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.  I asked these state leaders to join me in promoting local and regional food systems.  I shared with them a video clip of my conversation with Dave Lane, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in the Green Mountain State (Vermont).  I asked Dave for his insights as to how state governments can help.  Watch the video here: Read more »

Looking Back at the KYF2 Launch

There were many moving parts in the week-long launch of the USDA-wide initiative Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2). In this, my first blog entry, I review the week’s events. It was, in short, a whirlwind. Read more »