Serving up healthy food and a healthier next generation

Published 9:35 am Saturday, March 22, 2014

by Tom Vilsack

As Secretary of Agriculture, I take USDA’s nickname of the “People’s Department”—first coined by President Abraham Lincoln—to heart. Over the past five years, we have worked hard to build upon our tradition of service to the American people, supporting both the farmers and ranchers who grow our food and giving American families confidence that the food they buy at the grocery store is safe, healthy and affordable.

We could not accomplish our mission without the contributions of partner organizations and individual volunteers across the country. While our work with volunteers is by no means exclusive to nutrition and nutrition education, volunteers act as our boots on the ground in classrooms and communities to teach kids about where food comes from and why the diet and lifestyle choices they make today matter for their future. Volunteers, along with parents, teachers, school administrators, and school food service professionals, are absolutely critical to our efforts to improve childhood nutrition and help this generation of youngsters grow up healthy and strong.

Last year, we worked with 125 FoodCorps service members in schools across 15 states, including my home state of Iowa. FoodCorps is part of the AmeriCorps Service Network, and its volunteers spend one year terms in schools across the country, from Connecticut to California, helping schools bring local and regionally grown foods into the cafeteria and providing nutrition education to students.

The importance of that second piece cannot be overstated. The average elementary school student gets just an average of 3.4 hours of nutrition education each year, far less time than they spend watching television in a typical day. Studies show that kids exposed to healthy foods early on are more likely to try and like them, so one of the most important things that FoodCorps members do is work with teachers to expand the quantity and quality of nutrition and agricultural education available to students in the classroom.

One of the ways FoodCorps members do that is through hands-on learning experiences in school gardens. School gardens provide great learning tools for kids, teaching them to apply math, science and nutrition lessons outside of the classroom. Last year, FoodCorps members built or revitalized more than 400 school gardens. As an added bonus, those same FoodCorps members helped to harvest more than 29,000 pounds of produce, which was donated in their local communities.

I am also proud to say that the spirit of service runs deep in all that we do at the Department of Agriculture. For example, through Feds Feed Families, a Federal government-wide initiative to supply food and hygiene items for distribution by food banks and shelters, USDA last year donated more than more than 4.3 million pounds of food.

And through our People’s Garden Initiative—named in honor of President Lincoln—we’ve established a network of 2,014 gardens at USDA facilities, schools, faith-based centers and other locations across the country. USDA employees volunteer in the gardens to weed and perform other upkeep, teach demonstration classes, and harvest fruits, vegetables and herbs, which are donated to local food banks.

Volunteers have given 211,884 hours of their time to People’s Gardens located across the country. This time alone is worth an estimated $4.5 million dollars, which comes on top of the 3.8 million pounds of fresh produce volunteers have picked to donate to those in need.

Committed volunteers make a tremendous difference in towns and communities across our great nation. Their great ideas, hard work and innovation—whether on farms, in schools, or in the local community—improve the lives of everyone around them. If you’re currently a volunteer, keep it up! If not, I encourage you to for information on opportunities to make a difference in your own hometown.

Tom Vilsack is the United States Agriculture Secretary and leads the United States Department of Agriculture.