As President-elect Barack Obama's pick for secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will take the lead on such critical tasks as helping American farmers compete in a global economy.
But as a dietitian, I think Mr. Vilsack's toughest job will be one most pundits haven't mentioned: improving the food served in the nation's school lunchrooms.
As head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mr. Vilsack will play a key role in shaping federal school nutrition programs. And he won't have to wait long for a major opportunity for reform: In early 2009, the Child Nutrition Act, which regulates the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program, come up for congressional review.
The need for change has never been so clear. Every day, millions of American children push their trays through lunch lines offering foods packed with calories, fat and cholesterol. As students fill up on pepperoni pizza, hamburgers and chicken nuggets, they have little appetite for fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods.
Childhood obesity has reached record levels --16 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are now obese. As waistlines expand, so does the risk of chronic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.
The artery walls of overweight and obese children look like those of an average 45-year-old, according to a study presented at the American Heart Association's October 2008 convention. Roughly half of children between the ages of 8 and 15 already have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other risk factors for heart disease.
Unfortunately, the Child Nutrition Act has been a long-standing obstacle to improved student nutrition because it is designed to benefit American agribusiness -- not our kids.
Every year, spurred by legislative mandates, the USDA buys up millions of pounds of surplus beef, pork and other high-fat meat products to distribute to schools. That explains why the government's own School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study has found that an astonishing 80 percent of schools do not comply with federal nutrition guidelines.
When the act comes up for reauthorization, Congress must reform the school meal programs. And Barack Obama must wade into this issue with the same forcefulness that he has displayed on economic matters. As the economy worsens and families must stretch their food budgets, it's more important than ever for the federal government to help ensure that cash-strapped schools serve healthful foods.
The reform we need is simple. We must tell schools to stop serving so much saturated fat and cholesterol and to offer students more fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods. And we should reward schools that comply by increasing federal reimbursement rates.
Kathryn Strong is a staff nutritionist with the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ( www.pcrm.org ).