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Student Reporter Asks Tough Questions About Improving School Meals

Cross-posted from the Let’s Move blog

By Sammi Citron, USDA Intern

Reading a Scholastic book, or attending a Scholastic book fair are both rites of passage equal in importance to the first day you walked to school by yourself, or the first time dividing fractions finally made sense. A long-standing tradition within the book-savvy crowd is the Scholastic Kid Press Corps, a group of adolescents eager to be on the front lines of reporting well before they hit their teen years. One of these kids is Jonas Hosmer.

Many twelve-year-olds might be nervous to conduct an interview with someone like Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but not Jonas Hosmer – a preteen who declares a trip to the hobby store as the ultimate field trip and who dabbles in creating and editing videos in his very own production company – co-owned with his sister and friend – Apple Productions.

“I’m very curious, and I have an open mind to what’s going on around me,” boasts Jonas. “I enjoy interviewing people and learning more about them. Unlike some kids, I’m very comfortable talking with adults and kids, no matter who they are.”

With Jonas’s knack for interviewing, he’s a perfect fit as a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps., one of fifty-four student reporters located around the nation writing for Scholastic News and Junior Scholastic magazines. These magazines are featuring stories written by Hosmer and other reporters; the magazines are distributed in U.S. classrooms grades one through twelve with a combined circulation of 8 million and a reach of 25 million students, parents and teachers.

Since childhood obesity is fast becoming one of the most pressing concerns facing kids across the country, Jonas lined up questions for Secretary Vilsack that were aimed to uncover the issues related to school nutrition and ways the Obama administration is working to remedy the problem.

Like any good reporter, Jonas came prepared with a voice recorder and set to work. Seated in Secretary Vilsack’s office, the two chatted and Jonas asked questions like “why is it important for kids to have healthier lunch choices at school?,” and “how is the Let’s Move! campaign working to improve the nutrition and quality of school lunches?”

Outlining the Obama administration’s objectives, Secretary Vilsack helped Jonas to understand not only what kinds of changes kids will see in their school cafeterias when classes resume next fall, but also what steps will be taken to ensure a healthier school environment for the coming generations.

Secretary Vilsack pointed out that while improved school meals are critical to the nutrition and obesity prevention programs, another challenge lies in helping kids stay active and healthy outside of school.

When President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into effect 64 years ago, he said, “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children,” and today, the Obama administration agrees. With the help of parents, teachers and administrators in schools throughout the country and students like Jonas, a new generation of leaders is picking up on the decades-old promise.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) granted Jonas Hosmer (right) a reporter with the Scholastic Kids Press Corps an interview on Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) granted Jonas Hosmer (right) a reporter with the Scholastic Kids Press Corps an interview on Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Small Plant Help Desk, Accepting Calls!

Beth McKew, DVM, Staff Officer, State Outreach and Technical Assistance Staff, Office of Outreach, Employee Education and Training, Food Safety and Inspection Service

If you don’t work at USDA, you may not have read the 2008 Farm Bill, which means you may not be aware of the many benefits that came out of that legislation.  One such provision directed USDA to coordinate technical assistance to small meat and poultry processors.  As a result, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency within USDA committed to working with business of all sizes in support of a safe and wholesome food supply, established the Small Plant Help Desk

Small and very small processors make up more than 90% of the nation’s 6,000 federally inspected meat and poultry establishments and all of the 1,900 state inspected plants.  These small, independent businesses are often the closest and most convenient way that a farmer or rancher can bring their cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, or goats to market, and they are a critical part of the infrastructure that comprises our nation’s local and regional food systems.

Behind the Help Desk FSIS’ Staff Officers – subject-matter experts with recent in-plant experience – can assess callers’ requests and provide information and guidance materials that best meet their needs. The Help Desk not only provides such callers with step-by-step instructions, but also provides resources to assist them in understanding food safety issues relevant to the products they are producing.

Lucia Huebner from the Traveling Butcher in Hopewell, New Jersey, called the Small Plant Help Desk multiple times in search of help in starting up a federally-inspected mobile slaughter unit. Huebner’s questions ranged from those about specific federal regulations, such as potable water testing, to more general questions, such as how to coordinate her slaughter schedule with the local District Office. A Help Desk Staff Officer was able to answer her questions, put her in touch with district staff in her area, as well as connect her with a network of other small processors who have also faced the challenge of starting up a mobile slaughter unit. Huebner is still in the process of applying for a Federal Grant of Inspection, and plans to call the Help Desk again as questions arise along the way. “The Help Desk has been a fantastic resource for me,” says Huebner. “What a great feeling to know that I have someone to call when I have questions about federal inspection.”

The Help Desk can be reached at 877-374-7435, or 877 FSIS HELP, or by emailing