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Pop Quiz: How Can You Reduce the Fat in School Lunches?

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

When Americans think of the United States Department of Agriculture, they understandably think about the millions of farmers and ranchers who produce our food, feed, fiber, and fuel – the most productive in the world. But there is another group of Americans directly impacted by the work of USDA – the millions of our children who are fed through our child nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

A recent study sponsored by the Food and Nutrition Service examined how well schools across the country met USDA nutrition standards for key nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamin C.  Several of us at the USDA Economic Research Service realized that we could use that same data set to look at the characteristics of schools that met the fat requirements and, more importantly, what successful steps some schools are taking to do just that.

The data set is small, but it is nationally representative.  We found many statistically significant associations between fat content and school policies despite the small nature of the sample.

A number of school policies and practices were associated with lower fat lunches:

* participation in programs that promote fresh fruits and vegetables or locally grown food;
* providing low-fat milk as the only milk choice;
* eliminating French fries or dessert from the menus;
* eliminating vending machines in middle and high schools; and
* excluding a la carte foods from elementary school menus.

The meal planning method also showed a pattern. In the traditional “food-based” method, each meal must consist of certain food item categories (e.g., meat, vegetable, starch). Some schools have moved to a nutrient-based method that plans meals according to nutrient content. And some have opted for an intermediate, “enhanced food-based” plan that combines the food-based method with more fruits, vegetables, and grains. The traditional meal planning method was used more by schools with the highest fat content.

The only school characteristic that was strongly associated with lower fat meals was being in an urban location compared to a suburban or rural one.

The strength of so many associations between school food policies and lunch fat content provide some interesting food for thought in addressing current concerns about nutrition for children.

Dr. Lynn Harvey with NC Department of Public Instruction Child Nutrition Services and Southeast Regional Administrator Donald Arnette with USDA Food and Nutrition Service encourages Thomasville Primary School students in the “strawberry in the spoon” race as part of the school’s Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger) Dr. Lynn Harvey with NC Department of Public Instruction Child Nutrition Services and Southeast Regional Administrator Donald Arnette with USDA Food and Nutrition Service encourages Thomasville Primary School students in the “strawberry in the spoon” race as part of the school’s Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger)

Local farmer and County Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley volunteers his time to teach Thomasville Primary School students the art of farming in their school’s garden. The school located in Thomasville, NC, is a HealthierUS School Challenge Gold Award winner and also has a Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger) Local farmer and County Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley volunteers his time to teach Thomasville Primary School students the art of farming in their school’s garden. The school located in Thomasville, NC, is a HealthierUS School Challenge Gold Award winner and also has a Let’s Move program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama (USDA photo by Debbie Haston-Hilger)

 
Constance Newman, Economist, USDA Economic Research Service

USDA’s Nutrition Tour Makes a Stop in Las Vegas

Audrey Rowe, Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs
School Tours, Las Vegas, Nevada
April 26 and 28, 2010

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit two schools in Las Vegas, Nevada to discuss the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs.  As Deputy Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service’s Special Nutrition Programs, one of my top priorities is to improve the nutrition and health of our nation’s children.

During my trip, I visited two local schools in the Clark County School District to see our child nutrition programs at work.  My first stop was Reynaldo Martinez Elementary, where I met many wonderful children during the afterschool snack program.  The children were incredibly enthusiastic to hear that I brought them greetings on behalf of President and First Lady Obama, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. To say the least, there were many hoots and hollers.  Creating even more excitement were the delicious beef tacos the children were enjoying!

This afterschool program is made possible by a fantastic partnership between Three Square Food Bank and After-School All-Stars.  With a primary focus on at-risk youth, it is a successful collaboration among different organizations to provide nutritious meals to children.  Nevada is one of only 13 states that are eligible to serve meals in afterschool programs through the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

After my visit to Martinez Elementary, I was fortunate to squeeze in a visit to Three Square’s facility—one of the largest in the state—and was amazed with the program they run.  The food bank provides afterschool meals through CACFP at nine schools and serves 130 meals to children at Martinez Elementary School each day.

The second stop on my Las Vegas school tour was Hollingsworth Elementary to see their breakfast program.   With a total of 92% of the school’s students qualifying for free or reduced price meals, both the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs provide a nutritional safety net to ensure that these students are able to have at least two nutritious meals each day.

It was such a pleasure talking to these bright students and their parents about the benefits of school meals.  Some of them told me that they were very grateful to have the breakfast program at school – and were especially happy to have a few options to choose from.

I was so happy to see students starting their day with a nutritious breakfast since we know that children learn better and are more successful in school after eating a healthy breakfast.

After the breakfast service, I had the opportunity to talk with state and school officials, as well as a state Senator, about the challenges of operating the school meals programs. I shared with them how the Administration’s proposals for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization will provide them the help they need to improve the nutritional quality of school meals and the overall health of the school environment.  And I was able to hear from them what their priorities are and what they hope to see in the reauthorization bill.

As my Las Vegas tour came to an end, I thought about all the wonderful people I had met over those two days – from teachers and principals to nonprofit workers and a state representative, and of course, all of the children.  This trip made me realize how effective a group of passionate people can be in providing children the opportunity to have a few good meals each day.

I am very excited about our opportunity to pass legislation that will combat childhood hunger and obesity among schoolchildren and that will provide schools with the tools and resources needed to help children develop healthier eating habits.


Kids at Hollingsworth Elementary talk to Audrey Rowe, FNS Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs about how having a delicious and healthy breakfast helps them to learn.


Audrey Rowe, FNS Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs, eats breakfast with students at Hollingsworth Elementary in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Nourishing a Nation at the Wholesome Wave Foundation Conference

By Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, USDA

Exploring creative avenues to nourish a nation is a great to start any week.  And that’s exactly what USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan and I had the opportunity to do this Monday (May 10, 2010) during the first Wholesome Wave Foundation conference in Washington, DC.

The Wholesome Wave Foundation is a nonprofit organization that, with the help of its partner organizations, provides locally grown food to underserved neighborhoods across the nation.  They’ve achieved success through partnership-based programs that serve food deserts in rural and urban communities. And thanks to the important connections they’ve established, their efforts boost the visibility of existing Federal, State and local government agencies that share their values.

Deputy Secretary Merrigan is never an easy act to follow, but the conference did offer a natural forum for issues like childhood obesity and childhood hunger. So a dialogue on the strategies of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign, the HealthierUS School Challenge, and expanding access to healthy foods at farmers’ markets through SNAP (formerly food stamps) and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) – was enthusiastically embraced.

After the presentation, I was fortunate enough to meet a number of community leaders and stakeholders attending the conference, including an impressive group of farmers’ market operators in Maine – a place I have worked, lived, and known fondly for years.  Next, I spoke with media on Child Nutrition Reauthorization, SNAP EBT cards, and the impressive strides recently made in Texas to provide nutrition assistance benefits to their most vulnerable citizens.

The foundation’s hallmark Double Value Coupon Program encourages the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables by doubling the value of SNAP/food stamp dollars at participating farmers’ markets throughout the country.  It’s an innovative idea, and one that shares our mission of fostering a healthier nation for all.

Rain, Snow, and Sleet Didn’t Stop Kids at USDA Utah Event

Submitted by Dave Conine, USDA Rural Development State Director and Donna Birk, PIC

Weather was cold in late April in Utah when Santaquin City celebrated Earth Day with USDA Rural Development.  Santaquin City officials were shivering with excitement to receive a $7 million plus loan and grant combination for a Waste Water Project. 

USDA officials attended along with representatives of the city and state. The day started with a ‘Water Quality and Conservation Presentation” to the fourth grade students at Santaquin Elementary.

A program followed across the street at Centennial Park under the pavilion.  Dave Conine, USDA Rural Development State Director was on hand to outline the funding, reflect on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and say a few words of support. Conine applauded Mayor DeGraffenried, his staff, J.U.B. Engineering, and other partners for working for a very long time to bring together the funding resources, and expertise to make this worthwhile project possible. He concluded by saying, “This wastewater treatment facility is an example of the commitment we all have for maintaining and improving environmental quality.”

The City will purchase additional land located North of town to build the new Reclamation Facility, and should be completed in 2012.

The highlight of the day featured help from Thomas DeGraffenried’s (the Mayor’s son) third grade class from Santaquin Elementary. The children huddled together in coats and blankets as they planted a sycamore sapling near the playground at Centennial Park where it will grow for years to come.Students, School, and USDA officials plant a tree in Utah.

The event ended with a networking lunch at the local Senior Citizen Center.

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From REA to RUS-75 Years of Lighting the Way for Rural America

By Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator-USDA Rural Utilities Service

If you lived in a rural area 75 years ago, you probably didn’t have electricity. Water for livestock, cooking, cleaning and bathing had to be hand pumped from a well. Farmers risked milk spoilage in the summer, and people often got sick from lack of refrigeration of their food.

 On May 11, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to create the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to bring power to rural areas. It was a resounding success.  Nothing before or since has transformed rural America like the REA.  Today’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), part of the USDA Rural Development mission area, continues the work of REA. Just this week, four former REA and RUS administrators gathered in USDA’s radio studio, reflecting on their roles from 1993 to the present. Their observations will soon be available via podcast.

 Rural Development, through RUS, is aggressively building a program to finance renewable energy, and rural America is rapidly becoming a greater energy producer for the nation. Not only is this part of President Obama’s clean energy economy, but it will also create quality jobs in rural America.  Working with other federal agencies, rural electric cooperatives and other utilities, we are taking steps to modernize the electric grid and improve energy efficiency.

 While working to improve electric transmission services we are also meeting a new challenge: Delivering broadband to rural communities.  Without broadband, rural businesses are placed at a disadvantage and our children face diminished educational opportunities. Our next great achievement will be to build a system that will connect even the most remote places in America to the web. 

 Rural America’s future is bright, thanks to the thousands of men and women who have worked in or with the REA and now the RUS over the past three-quarters of a century.

 Chances are, if you live in rural America, some of those people are your neighbors, as close as your local electric cooperative.  They achieved a modern miracle, lighting rural America. This week, take a minute and think about all the good they’ve done.  They’ve achieved the greatest success in a government technology program of all time.   

75th Anniversary of REA/RUS 
 (Left to right) Christopher McLean, Administrator,  2000-2001; Wally Beyer 1993-1999; James Andrew 2005-2009;  Glenn English (CEO-NRECA);  Hilda Gay Legg 2001-2005; Jonathan Adelstein 2009 – present; Dallas Tonsager (Undersecretary, USDA Rural Development); gathered on May 4 at the U.S. Capitol for an event marking the beginnings of the effort to bring electricity to rural America.

Whippoorwill Hollow Organic Farm and NRCS Conservation Assistance

Mary Ann McQuinn, Georgia NRCS
NRCS Regional Assistant Chief Leonard Jordan, NRCS Georgia State Conservationist James E. Tillman, Sr., and others including Alice Rolls, the Executive Director of Georgia Organics toured Whippoorwill Hollow Farm with certified organic farmer Andy Byrd.  The group discussed the new Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative successes and opportunities for improvement.

Andy Byrd owns and operates Whippoorwill Hollow Farm in Walton County Georgia, a Certified Organic farm that produces fruits, berries, vegetables, and free-range eggs for sale on-farm and at the Morningside and Decatur Farmers’ Markets. Mr. Byrd is a cooperator with the Walton County Soil and Water District and worked with NRCS for several years to plan and implement various conservation practices. He is also Georgia’s first agri-ability participant.

Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Mr. Byrd has received financial assistance to implement management type practices such as Cover Crop, Irrigation Water Management, and Pest Management.

A major natural resource concern of Whippoorwill Hollow Farm is the limited amount of available water for irrigation and livestock watering. The farm is located in a region of the State that does not have an ample amount of ground water for these purposes.

Mr. Byrd worked closely with NRCS to plan and design an irrigation system which included micro-irrigation, irrigation reservoirs, and livestock watering facilities to make his system highly efficient and gives him the ability to use every drop of water as affectively as possible without putting any undue stress on the ground water system. He was also able to obtain funding for these structural practices through Georgia’s EQIP Outreach program which emphasizes the traditionally underserved groups such as Beginning Farmers, Socially Disadvantaged Farmers, Limited Resource Farmers and Small Scale Farmers.

Andy Byrd, Whippoorwhill Hollow Organic Farms, Walton Country, Georgia gives federal and state USDA officials a tour of his farm.
Andy Byrd, Whippoorwhill Hollow Organic Farms, Walton Country, Georgia gives federal and state USDA officials a tour of his farm.