Last week, we had a personal phone call with USDA Secretary Tom
Vilsack! Well, not completely personal. Many of our favorite
bloggers and school food advocates joined in on the first blogger
conference call with the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. The purpose of the
call was to announce the USDA's partnership with the National Dairy Council and the NFL to launch the new "Fuel Up to Play 60" program. (You can listen to the call here or see a transcript here.)
One of the best things about the call was that Secretary Vilsack fielded questions from bloggers. We were able to ask the Secretary about the upcoming Child Nutrition Act reauthorization and the role that high profile campaigns such as FUP60 play in changing nutrition policy.
The fact that the Secretary of Agriculture is reaching out to food and policy bloggers -- taking questions from many writers who get their messages out entirely through new media, blogging and Tweeting their ideas -- is in itself an indicator of just how much the USDA has changed under the Obama administration. (This is the same agency that recently announced a competition to design an online game for transforming 'tween eating habits. You can check out more of the USDA's new media efforts here.) It's one more example of efforts to innovate and to expand the network of people who can help spread health-promoting messages.
And Secretary Vilsack's answer to our question only supported my impression that it's a new day at the USDA.
In short, Secretary Vilsack emphasized the importance of advocacy, the need for individuals and organizations to get involved to make real change. He talked about why we need to show Congress that school food is not a niche issue that affects a subset of people but is rather a major challenge that touches on health care, farm policy, even national defense. Program such as FUP60 can help build that awareness. Showing that school food matters to NFL players and dairy farmers can only help.
While this isn't totally groundbreaking, it is interesting and very, very encouraging to hear the head of the USDA talking openly about building networks to advocate for changing nutrition policy.
All of a sudden, the USDA is the biggest advocate for school food policy change. That's new.
Of course, this isn't to say that we can sit back and take a break. We all have a lot of work ahead of us in the coming months to continue the push to improve nutrition, health and safety standards for school food. But it does mean that we'll be doing this work with the knowledge that the USDA is listening and is interested in working with us.
Now we need to take that message to Congress.