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Agriculture secretary promotes healthy diet, healthy defense

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Agriculture secretary promotes healthy diet, healthy defense

PORTLAND — The U.S. must address child obesity and hunger not only for the economic and educational prosperity of future generation, the nation's agriculture secretary said last week, but also for national security.

Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at Maine Medical Center and the U.S. Coast Guard Station in South Portland on Thursday, March 14. Educators, medical professionals and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan were among the local officials who accompanied Vilsack.

"We in this country have a challenge with our children and I wish it was just a single challenge," Vilsack said. "I wish it was hunger or obesity, but the reality is they're twin evils."

After speaking about his own issues with obesity as a young orphan, Vilsack turned to the national security aspect.

"Today we've got retired admirals and generals in a mission readiness effort alerting the country to the fact that we have a shrinking number of young people physically fit and ready for military service," Vilsack said. "With an all-volunteer military, if that pool of resource begins shrink, we may not have sufficient numbers to meet the security needs that the country has."

Vilsack said a third of children are obese "or at risk of being obese," and 10 percent of U.S. households have children with insecure access to food.

To fight these problems, Vilsack outlined programs that encourage families to mobilize and maintain healthy diets, like Maine Medical Center's "Let's Go!" program; online tools that provide nutritional recipes, like ChooseMyPlate.gov; and partnerships that increase access to affordable healthy food.

Vilsack also said 38,000 agencies across the country offer summer feeding or related programs for children who depend on schools for adequate nutrition.

Joined by retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Richard Mayo, Vilsack took his message to a less-youthful audience when he addressed about 80 Coast Guardsmen in a boat bay at the Coast Guard Station in South Portland.

Mayo is a member of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Mission Readiness, an organization working improve educational and nutritional opportunities for children, regardless of whether they aspire to military careers.

Mayo noted an estimated 75 percent of the nation's 17- to 24-year-old population is ineligible to serve in the military because they have criminal records, are not high school graduates, or are physically unfit for service.

"We need a bigger pool to select from. We are not getting the numbers we need," Mayo said.

Vilsack said his department's initiatives to educate families about proper nutrition while improving school lunch and snack menus will be combined with efforts to improve physical fitness classes in public schools. He noted the real progress may come with younger students first.

"It may be harder for high school students to embrace," he said as he talked about reinforcing the distinction between healthy "everyday" food and the less healthy "sometimes" foods for dietary choices.

Vilsack said the department will seek to limit unhealthy offerings in vending machines while encouraging food producers to "reformulate" snacks for healthier alternatives.

In areas where colder climates may limit availability of fresh produce and vegetables, Vilsack said the department hopes to help growers cultivate indoor crops while showing parents the added value coming from choosing healthier foods that may be more expensive.

Vilsack praised officials and programs in the Portland area for improving school nutrition, and said his audience likely had a real interest in helping avert childhood obesity.

"I suspect there are moms and dads and patriots concerned about threats to this country," Vilsack said.

Reporter David Harry contributed to this story. Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.