First Lady, Cabinet Secretaries host White House conference call to encourage school officials to join HealthierUS School Challenge...
On Wednesday afternoon, childhood obesity and the economics of healthier school meals were the topic of conversation when First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and chair of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity spoke on a national conference call from the Map Room at the White House. More than 260 school leaders and administrators from across the US were on the party line, according to the East Wing. (Above: Mrs. Obama, center, during the call, with Barnes, l, and Duncan, R)
"The reality is that our schools are on the frontlines of our efforts to fight childhood obesity," Mrs. Obama told the educators.
The goal of the call was to encourage schools to join the HealthierUs School Challenge (HUSSC), a key Let's Move! initiative that's run by USDA. And it had a bit of a Let's Make A Deal! flavor: Mrs. Obama and the Secretaries promised cash and prizes--and a party--to schools that meet the Challenge requirements.
"As you all know, this challenge is a great way for schools to create healthier environments for kids," Mrs. Obama said. "It sets concrete goals for more nutritious school food. It creates goals for regular physical activity and for sound nutrition education to help kids make better choices."
These goals are all included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the legislative cornerstone of the Let's Move! campaign, which President Obama signed into law last December. Currently, there are 552 schools in America that have been certified HealthierUS Schools. By June of this year, there is a Let's Move! goal of having 1,250 schools certified. And Mrs. Obama announced a new goal on Wednesday.
"We want every school in this country to be a HealthierUS School," Mrs. Obama said.
But how can that be accomplished? That's where Let's Make A Deal! comes in.
"Schools that complete this challenge can earn monetary rewards," Mrs. Obama said. "Let me repeat that: Schools that complete this challenge can earn monetary rewards."
HUSSC cash incentive prizes range from $500 to $2000 for schools, depending on what level of success they've have had in meeting the goals. Schools also receive a lovely banner and a bronze, silver, or gold plaque. And Sec. Vilsack told the school leaders that there is even more of an economic incentive to join: He announced $5.5 million in Team Nutrition Training Grants for Healthy Meals to provide technical and training assistance to schools, to help them meet the Challenge.
Approximately $2.5 million will be set aside to provide non-competitive grants, Vilsack said, with states competing with each other to receive the rest of the funding. States can apply for as much as $350,000. The grants will be awarded next September, with applications for intent to apply due on March 15. Schools and day care settings are eligible.
"The USDA has hit the ground running on implementation," Sec. Vilsack said, noting that his agency understands the many barriers that schools face to changing long-standing practices that might not promote health, including a lack of trained staff, a lack of kitchen equipment, and a lack of space for kids to engage in physical activity.
Vilsack also said he'd be sending a letter to Governors "of all fifty states," asking them to encourage their schools to enroll in the Challenge. The Secretary and his deputies toured the US last year, visiting schools that had met the qualifications to be certified for the Challenge.
More money...and a White House party
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was considered a big win not only in terms of the sweeping changes it provides for school nutrition environments, but also because it increases the money that schools participating in the National School Lunch program receive. For the first time in thirty years, schools will now get an additional six cents per meal from the federal government. And while that six cent increase might not sound like a lot--what can six cents actually buy, you might wonder--the federal feeding program supplies meals for more than 31 million students. It's a lot of cash.
But there's a caveat: In order to get the additional funding per meal, schools must meet the new nutrition standards that are now mandated by the Secretary of Agriculture in the legislation (the proposed new standards are here). Schools that continue to serve less healthy foods will suffer an economic hit. During the conference call, Vilsack explained that schools that meet the HUSSC requirements will qualify far more rapidly for that extra six cents per meal, because they'll already be serving foods that comply with the new standards. These standards will become final when a public comment period ends, and be in effect by next Fall.
"I know that right now a lot of school districts are struggling just to provide the basics," Mrs. Obama told the educators. "One of our missions of "Let's Move" is to do everything that we can to give folks like all of you the support you need to do your jobs."
She added that that is why she started the Let's Move Salad Bars To Schools initiative, which helps schools get salad bars, and the Chefs Move To Schools initiative, which marries professional chefs to their local public schools. And that's why she's promoting the President’s Active Lifestyle Award, which rewards kids who exercise for 60 minutes a day, five days a week for six consecutive weeks.
"Kids always respond to an award," Mrs. Obama said.
So do adults, apparently, because Mrs. Obama promised the school leaders an extra-special reward for participating in the Challenge, in addition to the cash.
"We’ll also be inviting representatives from every award-winning school to a very special reception at the White House," Mrs. Obama said.
That will be one huge reception, if America's schools meet Mrs. Obama's goals.
*Read about the HUSSC cash incentives here. Schools may submit applications for the HealthierUS School Challenge by US mail or online. A simplified district application process is available if there are two or more schools applying from one school district. The White House released a sample menu for healthier school lunch meals.
>The White House fact sheet about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act [PDF]
*Photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House