September 23, 2009 / 11:38 PM / 9 years ago

Streamline access to school meals: USDA's Vilsack

Students have a nutrition break mid-morning consisting of milk, juice, an orange and either mini sausage roll or Vegetarian Italian bagel at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Congress updates the U.S. school lunch program, it should remove paperwork barriers to enrollment to free or reduced-price meals, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.

Vilsack told a conference on children’s health it should be simpler to qualify for child nutrition programs and he mentioned “direct certification,” which would add children automatically to school meals if their families are approved for other social programs.

“We think it’s one way to improve on the current system,” said Vilsack, who said one goal for reauthorization of child nutrition programs would be to improve access.

One-third of eligible children do not take part in school meal programs, said a Vilsack aide.

Child nutrition programs, which cost about $21 billion a year, are due for reauthorization this year but Congress is not expected to approve an overhaul for some time. President Barack Obama proposed a $1 billion a year boost in funding but a funding source has not been identified.

Besides improved access, Vilsack said a framework for reauthorization should include more nutritious meals. He said schools also should tell students about healthy diets and encourage exercise.

Vilsack did not say how broadly the Obama administration might apply direct certification. One antihunger advocate said hundreds of thousands of children could be added to the meals programs.

As a way to improve nutrition, Vilsack suggested more emphasis on putting water or fruit drinks into school vending machines, rather than sugary and high-calorie drinks.

He suggested pilot projects to provide food when children are out of school, perhaps an electronic benefits transfer card for use in the summer.

Reporting by Charles Abbott

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