Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack encouraged schools throughout the country to participate in the Healthier US School Challenge this week. USDA created this initiative to recognize schools that that maintain a healthy school environment by improving meals, increasing physical activity and educating children on nutrition.

school-lunch6-featured.jpgTo date, 794 Healthier US School Challenge awards have been given to schools. 

In a USDA press release Vilsak said, “Even as Congress considers legislation to make historic improvements to school meals, there are also steps that moms and dads and others in the community can take to improve the health and nutrition of the meals their kids eat each day.”

“While many schools have made healthful changes to school meals, more can be accomplished. The Challenge encourages schools to take voluntary extra steps toward improving the nutrition of all foods offered in schools, enhancing the opportunity for children to be physically active during the school day and providing nutrition education to help them learn how to make healthy lifestyle decisions.”

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service have made it more appealing for schools to take the challenge by providing schools monetary incentives for earning Healthier US School Challenge certification, offering a toolkit to provide schools with the information necessary to carry out the program and providing schools with educational assistance.

“If you look at the health and nutrition of our nation’s children, you can see we need immediate action,” said Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon in the USDA press release.

“Obesity is growing faster than any other public health issue in the United States. The [Healthier US School Challenge] raises the bar and helps schools improve the quality of school meals and increase the participation in school meal programs. We can accomplish a number of these goals through rapid passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization now before Congress.”

The Obama administration has put strong emphasis on improving USDA’s child nutrition program. Currently, Congress is considering legislation to strengthen the Child Nutrition Act.

As a new school year begins, the USDA is also encouraging parents to take the time to educate their children about the importance of food safety and how to prevent foodborne illness.

“Children have a higher risk for foodborne illness, and they tend to have much more severe reactions to pathogens than adults,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “Teaching them how to protect themselves means we can reduce tragic illnesses now and continue to improve the public health of the next generation.”

FSIS suggests getting kids involved in making their lunches, which opens conversations about food safety.