(CNSNews.com) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday urged the nation's mayors to help USDA expand access to healthy food for children and other needy people, especially at a time of inflated grocery prices.
Vilsack outlined three programs that can provide the mayors' constituents with free or subsidized food. They include WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children); school lunches; and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
"I'm here today to ask the mayors to get engaged in this effort at an even higher level," Vilsack said:
"First and foremost, we are in the process of expanding and significantly modernizing our WIC program...The sad reality of this program, despite the important work that it does, is that nearly half of those who are eligible for the program do not participate in the program.
"So we're calling on mayors across the country to make a concerted effort to connect to your WIC agency in your community and to encourage moms with young children the opportunity to take full advantage of the WIC program. It can provide a wide range of assistance and help especially during a difficult time with food prices where they are today."
USDA preliminary data for 2022 puts WIC enrollment at 6,258,352, up from 6,243,959 in 2021.
Vilsack's second recommendation involves the National School Lunch Program. "And the chances are that you may not necessarily be in a state yet that has seen the light of universal free meals for children in schools across your city. So if you are the mayor and you are in a position to talk to your school officials, encourage them to look at Community Eligibility."
USDA's Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, is a free meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.
The USDA website says 490 schools have adopted CEP so far.
"We know from the pandemic experience that we saw a significant increase in the utilization of the school meal program," Vilsack said. "This is an opportunity to expand that program. We're also going to be in the process of continuing to upgrade the nutritional quality of those meals."
And finally, Vilsack pointed to SNAP, the program formerly dubbed "food stamps." He said nearly 80 percent of people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are senior citizens living on fixed incomes or working parents or people with disabilities.
"Sometimes there is this notion that there are a lot of folks out there that are taking advantage of the program," Vilsack said. "The reality is that there is a work and training requirement for those able-bodied adults who do not have children and who are in a position to work.
"So understanding and appreciating the reach of this program, making sure that your senior citizens understand and appreciate the opportunity and take advantage of this program, we can see an expansion of that effort as well."
USDA says 41,207,000 people were enrolled in SNAP in 2022, well above the 35,702,000 in 2019 before the pandemic hit.