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Opinion: How Tom Vilsack can be a champion for school food as USDA secretary

Given financial inequities and unemployment, school meals may be the only meals some kids get.

Teachers at Centennial School prepare to go out to parents cars with sack breakfast and lunch bags in San Luis, Colorado, on April 8, 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dear Tom Vilsack: You did it once; we think you can do it again. It’s time for school food to rejoin the national discussion. 

With incoming President Joe Biden having chosen you to once again serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this is an opportunity to tackle some of the most pressing issues of the day: Health, economic inequality, food insecurity, rural disparity and even environmental sustainability. 

Through our work as a school-food nonprofit, we understand the wide-reaching impact of school meals. As you know, research shows that healthy school food directly supports children in need, provides equitable food access and improves academic performance. On a larger scale, food production is accountable for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions

Mara Fleishman and Ann Cooper

Considering all these factors, school food should be part of your national platform for food systems progress.

You’ve done this work before: in 2010, the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) marked the most progressive school food legislation in U.S. history, and you were the person at the helm during your previous 2009-2017 tenure as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.

It has been 10 years since that legislation passed, and still today schools are serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and creating meals with less sodium and saturated fat. 

In 2015, you tried to reauthorize the HHFKA, but unfortunately bipartisan gridlock prevailed. Despite the political consequences, you were a voice for children across this country: “Now is not the time to roll back [child nutrition] standards but to continue our forward movement.”

By calling on Congress to reauthorize the HHFKA, you specifically noted that “poor nutrition, food insecurity [and] obesity … not only impact our children but threaten our economic competitiveness and national security.”

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Now, in 2020, ensuring students continue to have access to healthy school meals is more crucial than ever. As you know, the school lunch program feeds 30 million children every day — most from families in need. 

As a nation, we have come to understand that school food is the largest, and most well-positioned, nutrition and hunger relief system in this country. Given today’s financial inequities and high rates of unemployment, school meals may be the only meals some kids get, so they should be as nutritious as possible. 

This work is needed more than ever. We have just faced four years of child nutrition rollbacks, in addition to few (if any) innovative or progressive solutions. Instead of continuing HHFKA’s progress, we’ve seen higher salt allowance and the ability to opt-out of whole grain requirements

On top of rollbacks, our school food teams have faced monumental challenges over the last nine months; the pandemic has closed schools and created unprecedented operational hurdles to feed our most vulnerable families, especially in rural communities. 

Large urban school districts have often received more attention and support, but smaller rural districts are truly struggling with the lack of resources and infrastructure. Often, these rural communities have high levels of food insecurity and very few options for nutrition and hunger relief. 

Your commitment to rural communities will ensure that every child has access to healthy food, regardless of their location.

Our national work at the Chef Ann Foundation helps districts across the country serve more fresh, whole ingredient-based, scratch-cooked meals. Over the last decade, we’ve seen the determination, commitment and desire that school food professionals have to create change. 

This workforce wants to partner with you, Secretary-designee Vilsack, to ensure that school food is part of the solution. 

School food professionals have become front line responders; they have done the best they can, but it’s time to provide them with much-needed support and resources. We need to consider universal meals for all students, and ensure that all children are given the opportunity to thrive and meet their true potential.

You started a movement with the passage of the HHFKA in 2010. Parents, administrators, food service professionals, teachers, students and state legislators have all continued to fight for better food in schools. We hear from all of these groups regularly. There are thousands of us just waiting for your leadership and dedication to ensure that healthy meals are not a privilege but a right. 

We believe in your experience and your commitment to our children and our planet. We thank you for all you have done thus far, and eagerly await your renewed focus and dedication to our country’s children.


Mara Fleishman, a food systems expert who spent half her career in natural and organic products before turning to healthy school food, is CEO of the Chef Ann Foundation, a Boulder-based nonprofit focused on solutions to the school food crisis.

Chef Ann Cooper is an author, chef, educator and advocate of healthy food for children; she served as the food services director of the Boulder Valley School District for 11 years.


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