In a speech yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the Obama Administration’s priorities for school lunch reform and urged Congress to act quickly on the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

“The health of our nation–of our economy, our national security, and our communities–depends on the health of our children. We will not succeed if any of our children aren’t learning as they should because they are hungry,” said Vilsack. “This reauthorization is a critically important opportunity to improve the health of our children and reduce hunger in this country.”

school-lunch-tray1-featured.jpgThe Child Nutrition Act is a critical element of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation. Federal nutrition programs often feed schoolchildren a majority of their daily calories.

“The upcoming reauthorization must substantially improve the nutritional quality of the meals being served to our children,” said Vilsack.

In addition to improving quality and nutritional standards, encouraging more physical activity, and increasing funding for school cafeteria equipment, the Administration lists enhancing food safety as one of its priorities for the reauthorization.

“While the focus of reauthorization must remain on access and improving quality, we understand the underlying responsibility we have to make sure the food our children eat is both nutritious and safe,” said Vilsack.

“That is why we’ve begun a complete review of our programs and protocols to enhance the safety of all food that is served to our children, and why this month we announced a series of reforms designed to ensure that the foods we procure are safe and of the highest quality,” added Vilsack. “Parents expect as much and children deserve no less.”

The changes include improving the food safety purchasing requirements for beef suppliers and launching a review by the National Academies of Science (NAS) on the entire ground beef purchasing program.

The increased attention to school lunch safety comes after a series of USA Today exposes found major gaps in the current system. A recent New York Times article also questioned the efficacy and safety of an ammonia processing technique used in producing ground beef widely purchased by the school lunch program.

See Food Safety News detailed coverage of the new USDA school lunch food safety initiatives.

The Child Nutrition Act, originally enacted under President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, to

expand the reach of federal nutrition programs, requires

reauthorization every five years. Congress is expected to reauthorize the bill this Spring.