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Healthier Families and a Healthier Nation

USDA -  Ready to Move for a Healthier Generation

By Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

A call to action, a challenge for a generation, no matter what we call it, First Lady Michelle Obama’s announcement of the Let’s Move! initiative is an ambitious goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity. It is a goal that we take seriously here at USDA and we are prepared to dedicate our time, energy, and resources to achieving this goal.

Let's Move logoWe know the statistics: one in three children are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for diabetes and others chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma. Access to nutritious food and proper education on healthy lifestyles are in need of improvement.

Here is a snapshot of what we are going to be working on at USDA to help the First Lady – but it is only a fraction of the full effort our Department will be implementing to reach the goals set forth.

Our Food and Nutrition programs will be working to serve healthier food in our schools. To do this, we will be working with Congress to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act and hopefully invest an additional $10 billion over ten years to improve the quality of the National School Lunch and Breakfast program, increase the number of kids participating, and ensure schools have the resources they need to make program changes. This means that children across the nation will have better access to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. These nutritious foods will be served in all school cafeterias and an additional one million students will be served through school lunch programs in the next five years.
We are also working with the First Lady to promote and double the number of schools participating in the Healthier US School Challenge, which establishes rigorous standards for schools’ food quality, participation in meal programs, physical activity, and nutrition education – the key components that make for healthy and active kids.

And USDA is embracing the latest technology and external stakeholders to help reach our goals. Our Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services is preparing to launch the Innovations for Healthy Kids Challenge, a call to American entrepreneurs, software developers, and students to use a recently released USDA nutrition data set to create innovative, fun, and engaging web-based learning applications that motivate kids, especially “tweens” (aged 9-12) and their parents, to eat more healthfully and be more physically active.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us, but it is a challenge we are ready to take on. Now is the time to make America’s move to raise a healthier generation of kids.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Announces Selection of a Pellet Plant Project to Bring New Jobs to Northern Vermont Funded with Recovery Act Support

At a Town Hall meeting in Burlington, Vermont, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the selection of Vermont Renewable Energy Company for a USDA Rural Development Business and Industry Loan Guarantee for a $10 million loan given by Community National Bank. The funds will be used to provide essential capital to establish a new pellet processing plant at the former furniture manufacturing facility in Island Pond, Vermont. The funding is provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was signed into law one year ago tomorrow.

Thirty four high quality wage jobs and over 100 indirect jobs will be created when the Vermont Renewable Energy Company’s proposed pellet plant is at full operation. Many of the workers will come from a skilled workforce in the Northeast Kingdom counties of Essex, Caledonia, and Orleans, Vermont. Many of the prospective employees have been unemployed since the closing of the furniture plant in 2001.

This project ties into Secretary Vilsack’s vision for managing the nation’s forests, including the use of woody biomass as economic incentives to maintain our forests. It will also give the Northeast Kingdom the lift they need for recovery after so many economic downturns.

Representatives from Vermont Renewable Energy, State and local officials from the Northeast Kingdom, and Community National Bank were present for the announcement and met with local media to discuss the progress of the project immediately after the announcement.

Secretary Vilsack was joined by Vermont’s Congressional delegation, Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Congressman Peter Welch. The Town Hall meeting, organized by Senator Sanders was open to the public where they heard questions and comments on issues associated with dairy farming, the need for access to broadband, and other agriculture related topics.

Tom vilsackSecretary Vilsack shares a laugh with Rich Mansfield, Chief Financial Officer for Vermont Renewable Energy Company, and Patricia Sears of the Newport Renaissance Corporation before Town Meeting event in Burlington.

Vermont Town MeetingWith standing room only, Vermonters and neighboring state residents packed the Green Mountain Ballroom at the Burlington, VT Hilton on Saturday. The Town Hall meeting was led by Senator Bernie Sanders, and included Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the entire Vermont congressional delegation.

Written by Anita Rios Moore

Public Affairs Specialist

Missouri Rural Development Multi-family Housing Properties Benefit with FHLB-Des Moines Partnership

Over 100 people gathered in St. Clair, Missouri City Hall gymnasium earlier this month to celebrate the provision of  $2,500,000 to USDA Rural Development ( (RD) from Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB-Des Moines).   Tammye Trevino, Rural Development’s Rural Housing Administrator joined me in accepting the funds in recognition of an outstanding partnership with FHLB-Des Moines, the Meramec Regional Planning Commission and the eight Multi-Family Housing (MFH) complexes that received grant funding for rehabilitation during 2009.

Having Administrator Trevino present was a tremendous honor and a highlight for all in attendance.  She said, “Our goal is to make necessary improvements and bring a higher standard of living to the elderly and disabled residents of the properties receiving these funds. This financing is an example of the commitment by the Obama Administration to leverage public and private resources to increase economic opportunities and improve the quality of life for rural Missourians

We were very pleased to have the support of our federal elected officials represented by: Rachel McCombs with Senator “Kit” Bond; Jerryl Christmas with Senator Claire McCaskill; and Dan Engeman with Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer.

Missouri’s RD multi-family housing (MFH) portfolio of about 750 complexes and 18,000 units has been the largest or next to the largest in the nation for many years.   Approximately 40 percent of this caseload was loans made to volunteer, non- profit boards that provided housing for the elderly and disabled.  Since many of these complexes were built in the early 70’s the need for repairs and rehabilitation was becoming critical.  There was also a sincere desire to keep the rental rates low and reasonable since many of the elderly and disabled tenants had very limited income, typically below $8,000.  Since federal funds were limited we here in Missouri found a “white knight” in the FHLB-Des Moines Affordable Housing Program.

Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines is a wholesale cooperative bank that provides low-cost short and long term funding and community lending to more than 1,200 member banks. It devotes 10 percent of its net income each year to affordable housing.

Through my relationship with Curt Heidt, FHLB-Des Moines Vice President and Community Investment Officer, we were able to brainstorm and mold a plan to help our Missouri RD Section 515 MFH properties using their Affordable Housing Program (AHP).  The AHP was designed to help FHLB-Des Moines member financial institutions and their community partners develop affordable housing for low-to moderate-income households.   Some of the improvements have included new roofs, new energy efficient exterior doors and windows, new carpet, new appliances, new cabinets and upgrading to a more energy efficient heating and air conditioning systems.

My sincere thanks to Curt Heidt and the FHLB-Des Moines leadership team, the FHLB-Des Moines Board of Directors and the Affordable Housing Advisory Council for their commitment and funding support of this tremendously valuable program for rehabilitation of our MFH senior properties.  It was a big step for them to enter the realm of our rental program but without their help, Missouri residents would have lost many of these properties.  Now, not only are the properties available, but they also have a “face-lift”  with things such as central heating and air, which most of us take for granted and they can remain affordable for our residents.

Some of the other partners in this process have been grant writers such as the staff of Regional Planning Commissions (RPC) or Community Action Agencies who have done an outstanding job with the grant writing process.  Also, without a doubt a big thank you on the success of this program has been the volunteer boards that have dedicated countless hours with the ultimate goal of providing high quality affordable living options for the elderly and disabled in the many rural communities across Missouri.  Finally, these grants would not have been available were it not for the involvement, participation, and sponsorship of FHLB local member banks and their commitment to this program and the benefit to their elderly in their communities.

Clifford Crawford, a resident of Leasburg Senior Citizens Home, one of the 2009 grant recipients, spoke on behalf of many residents by providing inspiring comments regarding how grateful they were to Federal Home Loan Bank and USDA Rural Development for the repairs and rehabilitation of their apartments.

I also want to recognize our RD national leadership for its help.  The MFH program is a labor intensive program but through a “labor of love” the Missouri RD staff have partnered with FHLB, the grant writers, contractors, owners and volunteers and been truly committed to providing affordable housing to our senior citizens and for that I am very proud and thankful.

Missouri Crowd

Clifford Crawford, resident of Leasburg Senior Citizens Home, speaking on behalf of the many residents that benefited with the FHLB grant funds to repair and rehab the RD MFH properties. State Director Dunning is seated second from right and Administrator Trevino is seated on the far right.

Missouri complex

One of the four plexes at the St. Clair MFH property, rehabilitated with FHLB funding.


Submitted by: Janie Dunning, Missouri State Director, & George Thomas, Public Information Coordinator

On The Road Again… In Texas

Thank you Willie Nelson for giving us a great theme song during our journey around the great state of Texas recently as we continued the conversation about jobs and economic growth in rural America that began in December with President Obama at the White House.  The Farm Service Agency Executive Director, Juan Garcia, and I decided that the best way to hold these forums were to do it face-to-face with our rural communities.  Nine days of driving over 3000 miles, we met with over 100 Texans at seven forums held in strategically located areas. Read more »

USDA Administrator Says to New Mexico, “Your Business is Our Business and Our Business is Your Business.”

New Mexico State Director Terry Brunner welcomed USDA Rural Development Administrator of Business and Cooperative Programs Judy Canales to Albuquerque earlier this month to kick off a two day training session for Rural Development staff and lenders from across the state.

After being introduced to our staff by the State Director, Administrator Canales said, “This is a fantastic time for New Mexico to provide more business because of the funds that have been made available through the Recovery Act.” To make her point Canales, added, “I had a meeting on Tuesday in Texas with 60 lenders and some of them told me they are very interested in doing business here in New Mexico.”

Canales told the RD staff she is traveling the nation meeting with lenders and other RD staff with a very simple message. “Your business is our business.  And, our business is your business.”  That morning Administrator Canales and State Director Brunner held a meeting with 22 local lenders and venture capital firms to discuss the advantages of using the B & I Guaranteed Loan Program.

Later in the day 22 staff members assigned to business programs from across New Mexico attended an intensive business workshop taught by Jeff Jobe an RD national business field advisor from Iowa.  Jobe gave the staff a large binder full of information on the B&I Guaranteed Loan program and the REAP Program which promotes energy efficient projects in rural America.

The staff attending the workshop asked Jobe questions about the B&I Guaranteed loan program from initial inquiries to filling out the various forms and paperwork. Special thanks go out to New Mexico USDA Rural Development Business Programs staff who helped organize the training.  For more information about B&I Loan Guarantees click here.

New Mexico State Director Terry Brunner
New Mexico State Director Terry Brunner welcomes Administrator Judith Canales to New Mexico to kick-off staff and lender training. During his welcome Mr. Brunner presented Ms. Canales with a basket full of New Mexico grown agriculture products.

New Mexico State Terry Brunner
New Mexico State Director Terry Brunner greets staff during the RBS programs training session.


Submitted by Ernie Watson, USDA Rural Development-New Mexico

Your Food Environment Atlas

As I write, the streets of D.C. are piled with snow, Federal government offices in the area are closed, and the city has come to a slip-sliding standstill.  Throughout the storm, my colleagues from USDA’s Economic Research Service have been working to get Your Food Environment Atlas up and running for the launch of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.  Working on this mapping tool, which measures a community’s food-choice landscape, has been particularly interesting as the piles of record snowfall continue to obscure our own food landscape.

I have always known that my food environment plays an important role in the types of foods I feed myself and my family. Never has this been more true: my family’s home is without power, the neighborhood streets are undrivable, and our food environment has been whittled down to the restaurants and ready-to-eat food establishments we can walk to and that still have food.  These few days have given me a taste for what many experience daily: limited cooking options and limited access to healthy foods.

For children in low-income families living in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, unhealthy diets may be an unavoidable reality of everyday life, not just snow-storm life.  For the thousands of children who are obese or overweight, this reality has serious health consequences.  In recognition of the toll the obesity epidemic is having on the health and well-being of our children, the First Lady has challenged the nation to move to end childhood obesity in a generation.  In recognition of the influences that the food environment has on diet quality, she has challenged researchers across government to examine the interaction of factors influencing food and lifestyle choices.

USDA’s Your Food Environment Atlas is an online mapping tool that compares the food environment of U.S. counties—the mix of factors that together influence food choices, diet quality, and general fitness among residents.  The Atlas contains 90 food environment indicators—most at the county level—allowing Atlas users to visualize and compare on a map how counties fare on each of the indicators. This new online tool is designed to stimulate research and inform policymakers as they address the nexus between diet and public health.

What can the Atlas tell us? Think about what the First Lady has said about the obstacles people often face in taking responsibility for adopting healthy habits of diet and fitness. Access, affordability, and convenience affect the ability to provide healthy meals for children and other household members. Proximity to full-service grocery stores affects both access and affordability, and it’s one of the many indicators the Atlas measures, including proximity among low-income residents. The Atlas shows the concentration of convenience food stores, fast-food establishments, full-service restaurants, and farmers’ markets in a county.

A variety of indicators measured in the Atlas specifically affect affordability. Examples are the price ratios of selected healthy foods to snack foods and even the price of low-fat milk. The food and financial needs among a county’s population are also part of the picture: data on these include median household income, poverty rates, and eligibility of residents for food programs like school lunches and SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program).

We can find information in the Atlas on per capita consumption of foods from both the healthy and not-so-healthy side of the diet ledger, including fruit and vegetables, soft drinks, and fats. And the Atlas measures some key health outcomes like diabetes and obesity rates.

Michelle Obama and others have emphasized the importance of exercise as well as healthy diets in curbing childhood obesity and promoting general fitness. Parks, playgrounds, and after-school sports can be sidelined if a community lacks funds. This is another area Your Food Environment Atlas addresses, with data that include counties’ recreation and fitness facilities, and natural amenities.

All of these components of a community’s food environment are just a sample of the 90 indicators the Atlas contains, covering demographic, health, and food access characteristics. While particularly useful to researchers, the Atlas is available to the general public on the ERS website. Anyone using this tool can, for example, create a map and compare counties by prevalence of adult diabetes, and then see how they compare in geographic access to grocery stores. And for each county, users can view all the county-level indicators that contribute to its food environment profile.

The data in Your Food Environment Atlas document the situations of real people in real communities. We hope this web tool will contribute to a national conversation on food choices and diet quality, and on some of the social and economic conditions to consider when searching for solutions to diet-related public health issues.

Your food Environment Atlas Screenshot
The Atlas is available on the web at http://www.ers.usda.gov/foodatlas/

Elise Golan, USDA’s Economic Research Service egolan@ers.usda.gov