In what is revered as one of the country’s most famed speeches, newly-elected President John F. Kennedy stood in front of the nation and promised to bring change on a united front – “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” These words have echoed from generation to generation and still serve as a civil call to action for all Americans.
Hours after his swearing-in, President Kennedy signed his inaugural executive order calling upon then-Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, to improve the food assistance provided to families in need; a policy that stands as a pillar of USDA’s work today. President Kennedy recognized the importance of not just supplying sustenance, but bringing food that was healthy to families across the country.
After his first month in office, Kennedy reinstituted the Food Stamp Program, and expanded school lunch and milk programs. In the decades that followed, the importance of hunger safety nets such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), has become increasingly evident. The need for support for a strong nutrition safety net in America still exists today with recent data showing that 17 million US households are food insecure, and one in four Americans are currently receiving nutrition assistance.
In the President’s order to Secretary Freeman, he emphasized the importance of improving the variety and nutritional content of foods in the nutrition assistance program. While Presidents have changed, the commitment to ensuring all Americans have healthy, nutritious food continues today. In December, President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Working to reauthorize USDA’s core child nutrition programs – National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care, Summer Food Service Programs, and WIC – this new law ensures that each school day, healthier meals are on the plates of 32 million kids.
As President Kennedy said, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” And so, from the 35th President to the 44th, nutrition assistance in the United States remains on the forefront of administration efforts. As we honor a fight that began 50 years ago with President Kennedy, we work tirelessly to this day to ensure that each family and every child is supplied with food that will set them on a path to a healthy lifestyle.