Before he was Secretary of Agriculture, and before he was governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack was mayor of Mount Pleasant, a town of less than 8,000 citizens residing on less than eight square miles.
So Vilsack was in his element this weekend at the “Congress of Cities” being held at the Denver Convention Center by the National League of Cities. He was there to enlist cities and towns in the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity.
Vilsack took the stage immediately after an articulate First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a video message. Vilsack used his common experience as a mayor to connect with the audience of the nation’s elected leaders of cities and towns.
“It is often said that you are where the rubber meets the road,” Vilsack told the delegates representing more than 1,600 American cities and towns that are members of the National League of Cities.
Vilsack said childhood obesity has become an epidemic in the United States with one out of three youths either obese or at risk of becoming obese.
The nation also has a child nutrition problem as evidenced by USDA’s “Food Insecurity” survey that finds one child in four is not getting nutritional meals at some point every 30 days.
Vilsack said obesity and nutritional problems are why a group of the nation’s retired general and flag officers have warned that something must be done about the fact that at age 18 only one in four American youths are physically qualified for military service.
“This is a national security issue for the country,” the USDA Secretary said.
Vilsack wants cities to take steps that he said would not cost them a lot of money. For example, he urged them to set up Food Policy Councils to review where “food deserts” exist or where community gardens might be located.
He said USDA offices around the county are now providing ground for 700 gardens that this growing season produced 90,000 pounds of fresh produce. Most went to local food banks.
The biggest reaction Vilsack got out the audience of city leaders was when he praised Congress for getting the “sugar, sodium, and fat” out of the school lunch program with last week’s passage of the Child Nutrition bill.
He urged cities to get involved with their school districts in making nutritional food more available. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 cleared the House on a bipartisan vote of 264-157, and now awaits President Obama’s signature.
Vilsack did not say anything about Senate passage of the food safety bill last week or the fact that one of four children annually suffers from foodborne illnesses.
He did not take any questions from the delegates or the media.