Transcript of Meatless Monday and School Nutrition conversation with Tom Vilsack and Trent Loos

Trent Loos Interview with Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture




I have been voicing concern for a little over a month now about the culture at the USDA, particularly in light of the recent “Meatless Monday” memo sent to the USDA employees.  I wanted to get the man himself on the air to address it, so first of all, thank you for joining me.



Happy to be with you.  I’m not quite sure why we’re having this conversation, to be honest with you.




Well, the thing that I wanted to start with is… recently, I believe it was the June USDA employee memo that all USDA employees should go meatless on Monday.  Is it true that that did end up in the employee newsletter?




Well, Trent, let me just say this.  It was the idea of two individuals who have responsibility for putting a newsletter out; it was not the official policy of USDA, and when I found out it was in the newsletter, I immediately ordered it to be withdrawn and removed, and I basically said … asked the supervisors of those two individuals to come to my office and I read them the riot act and I am pretty sure those two individuals who were not in the building at the time have had that riot act read to them by their supervisors.




So, they’re still employed by USDA?




They’re still employed, but they clearly understand that they’ve made a serious mistake in assuming that they had the right and the permission to print something along those lines.




And I fully know that what you are telling me is accurate because you made a public statement.  You addressed most ag commodity groups in telling them the same story … But I think the root of my concern, Secretary, is that while this came out, and it was fixed, it almost seems to me that the culture within the USDA has changed… to a vegan society, quite frankly, not just “moderate” amounts of meat, milk, and egg consumption, but elimination completely.




I have no idea why you think that.  That’s totally wrong and false and it’s not based on fact.  We are very much interested in making sure that every aspect of agriculture is supported.  We’re very proud of the fact that we’re headed towards a record year in protein exports around the world.  We obviously understand and appreciate that our producers are in tough straits this year because of the drought, which is why we’ve moved very effectively and very quickly to try to open up hay and grazing opportunities for our producers on CRP land and wetland reserve areas, while we’ve made emergency loans available to our producers in drought-stricken areas, why we’ve created a fund of $30 million to assist them in trying to get water and forage to livestock and why we announced just last week $170 million in purchases of pork, poultry, lamb, as well as catfish…to help those industries out.  So I just don’t … think… I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but I will tell you it’s not the USDA that I’m in charge of, and one that I’ve been working in for the last 3.5 years.




The one thing that troubled me most about that particular memo — and I know you’re saying that it’s not accurate and you rescinded it as soon as you found out about it — but what troubled me most was not the message to moderate meat consumption (because I personally believe that a moderate amount of ALL food groups and exercise more than you eat is the simplistic way of healthy living, and that’s what we’ve gotten away from)..but what concerned me the most was, the message was, “Go meatless on Monday because meat consumption is contributing to climate change.”  Scientifically, that’s been verified to be false, and does that thought process exist throughout the ranks of USDA?



That thought process does not exist throughout the ranks of USDA.  I’ll say again…this was two individuals who concluded this and had no authority to conclude it or write it or produce it or place it in a memo and they have been told in no uncertain terms that they stepped over a line that they did not have permission to step over.  That is just not the case.  We are working very hard at USDA to create income opportunities, diversification of income opportunities for farmers and producers, that’s why we’ve focused on not just production agriculture and exports but the XX based economy, new fuel opportunities, new capacities to use crop residue, livestock waste, plant material to produce virtually everything in the economy.  It’s why we have been focused on direct-to-consumer sales through the expansion of farmers’ markets and institutional purchases of food that’s produced in a region, because it’s one of the fastest-growing aspects of the agricultural economy and it’s helping to create new job opportunities in rural areas… it’s why we’ve seen rural manufacturing come back, it’s why we’ve seen record farm income in the last several years… so you know, it’s two guys and I think you.. frankly after I made the statement, I called JD Alexander of the Cattlemen’s Association and expressed my concern about this… it really, I think folks are trying to make something out of it that is not … not accurate and not consistent with our policies at USDA.



With that said, I’m holding in my hands a piece of paper that says is the final rule with the nutrition standards for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs which was actually released January 2012.  Even though you tell me it’s not the culture at USDA, to go milk- meat- and egg-free, it certainly is present throughout everything that I see, particularly I’ll just emphasize a few things and allow you to expand upon them.  Protein in breakfast is non-existent, we’re capping calories at 500 for K-5, 550 for 6-8 and 9-12 capping calories at 600, but 100% of those calories are to come from fruits, and grains which would be sugars and starches.




I don’t know what you’re reading, but that’s not accurate.  It is accurate that we are placing limitations on calories, and the reason we are is that 1/3 of our youngsters in schools are obese or at risk of being obese.  We have an institute of medicine study that recommends lower sugar and fat content, which we have done with the new standards, but if you look at the standards, there are a number of recipe plans that schools can choose from… those recipe plans include protein, they include meat products, they just want to make sure they have less sodium, less fat, in the protein products that the kids are enjoying.  Dairy is part of it, will continue to be part of it, it needs to be part of it, in fact we are encouraging more consumption of low-fat dairy, so again, I’m not quite sure what you’re reading, but let’s be honest and let’s be fair about this:  It is a balanced meal that we are trying to provide for our youngsters, it’s to encourage them to have healthy eating patterns (as you pointed out earlier in the interview, moderation in all things and I think that’s basically what we’re trying to incorporate here), encourage schools to get away from the sodium-ladened, fat-ladened, sugar-ladened sweets and snacks and ala carte meals that have been furnished in the past.


In the past, the school program, the nutrition program was designed to actually increase caloric intake.  It started in 1946, the school lunch program did, because Harry Truman was concerned we didn’t have enough calories in our youngsters to be able to have a military presence strong enough to defend the country.  Ironically, 60, 70 years later, we’re in a situation where retired generals and admirals went to the Congress asking them to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which the Congress did, directing us to do a better job of providing more nutritious meals to kids, so that we would have kids who would be fit for military service since only 19% of the kids 19-24 years of age are in fact fit for military service.  So it’s not to suggest that we’re not… that we’re trying to get meat out of the school lunch program or the school breakfast program, that’s just not accurate.




Just to be clear, I’m reading from a printed piece from the USDA website…




I don’t have it in front of me, but there’s no way that that’s basically…I know what the meal plans are, and I know what the rules are.  And the rules basically provide for so many ounces of protein and so many slices of whole-grain bread and so many servings of fruit and vegetables  … it’s a balanced approach.




Yeah, in the breakfast portion, there is zero allowed for protein and meat.  Now in the lunch, it says that up to seniors in High School – iow, freshmen through seniors, the maximum amount of protein per week – this would be meat protein – 12 ounces.  If you take 12 ounces divided by 5, that’s about 2 ounces per day, for a senior…for a freshman thru senior.




That’s per meal.  You have to understand, these kids are likely to be receiving breakfast and dinner at home.  This is just the school lunch program.


Loos:  Right.  About 2 ounces per meal.


Vilsack:  It’s about balancing.  It’s about making sure that there is fruit, vegetables, protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.  I mean, we have kids who are overweight.  And it’s gotta be that… we gotta focus on this because our kids are not in the shape they need to be in.




I want to address two things before we run out of time… We had a tremendous study published last week in the European Journal of Nutrition looking at high-fat dairy products.  And after they looked at 70 different studies they concluded that kids who consumed low-fat dairy products had the highest body fat content, kids who consumed the high-fat dairy products had the lowest body content, and my over-all concern, Secretary, is that we have eliminated fat, we’ve eliminated the essential fat because not all fat is bad, and if you look at this dietary guideline, it looks like all of the components of healthy living leading to proper brain function have been eliminated from the diets of our school lunch program.  It appears as though we’re formulating our school nutrition program to meet the requirements of the 1/3 of the kids that are overweight, and 2/3 of the kids are going to suffer the consequences.



Well, that’s absurd.  And we base our nutrition programs on studies done by American physicians and doctors and scientists… the Institute of Medicine basically is the basis upon which these nutrition standards were established and I don’t have any idea what the study you’re alluding to but I will tell you that what we have done has been based on the best science and the best medical advice available.




Well, I’m looking at USDA’s study in 1995 by Wayne Campbell, indicating that kids and adults should be at 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, so I don’t think it follows that.


Two final things:  If I send my 9 year old daughter with a sack lunch and it does not meet what your minimum/maximum requirements should be, is somebody gonna take it from her?






Loos:  Final thing:  What is the impact of the First Lady, Michelle Obama, on the school lunch program and on the culture at USDA?


Vilsack:  What do you mean by impact?


Loos:  The things that I’m voicing as a concern are the things that I’m hearing her talk about we need to do:  Low-fat dairy products… and case in point:  I personally saw her last Monday night on Jay Leno scold an Olympic athlete for eating an egg McMuffin.



Listen, she was having fun with Gabby Douglass.  C’mon now, you know, look, I’m happy to have an interview with someone who is fair and who has not got a particular agenda in mind here.  The First Lady‘s only interest is making sure our kids are healthy.  Her “Let’s Move” initiative is about calories in and calories out.  It is supported by science, it is supported by the food industry, it is supported by athletes, it is supported by the military, and it has been effective in bringing to mind the need for our country to think more clearly about nutrition and exercise.  And you said it earlier:  Calories in and calories out, and that’s what she’s preaching.



60% of our teenage girls are iron deficient, 80% are calcium deficient, 47% of them are zinc deficient…where will they get that in the school lunch program?




They get it with the balance we’re providing.  That’s the point…the point is, our kids haven’t been eating properly.



Okay, I appreciate your time.  Do we disagree that if you put a tremendous amount of… because you can get enough iron from 2 ¾ cups of raw spinach instead of three ounces of beef.  Are kids going to eat those products that we deem to be healthy?



If the parents are focused on making sure their youngsters eat healthy, absolutely.  Absolutely.  I mean, again, this is one meal out of three.  And maybe in some cases, kids who come to school have breakfast, maybe it’s 2 meals out of 3, and it’s 5 days out of 7 during the school year and not during the summer months, so it’s a combination of what parents are doing, what schools are doing…trying to get to a better place so that 1/3 of our kids are not overweight or obese and that we have kids who are in a position to do the very best they can in school and the very best they can in whatever they choose to do, whether it’s military service or doing something else to help their country out.  Thanks, Trent, we gotta run.



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6 Responses to Transcript of Meatless Monday and School Nutrition conversation with Tom Vilsack and Trent Loos

  1. The Queen says:

    Do you know when and where this interview was held? And was it taped? Thanks!! I’d love to use this at my blog but can’t seem to find it elsewhere.

  2. The Queen says:

    I’ll link to your blog but can I use the transcript also?

  3. The Queen says:

    First reply didn’t show up…thanks a million!!

  4. susie says:

    This is the menu for the school I work at which is a small rural school in Missouri.
    Monday – breakfast pizza, fruit
    Tuesday – breakfast burrito, fruit
    Wednesday – biscuit and gravy, fruit
    Thursday – cereal, cinnamon toast, fruit
    Friday – pancakes, fruit
    Monday – corn dog, mac and cheese, carrots, pear
    Tuesday – tacos/cheese, lettuce, tomato, beans, corn, rice krispy
    Wednesday – spaghetti, garlic toast, green beans, peaches
    Thursday – chicken nuggets, salad and tomotoes, string cheese, fruit salad
    Friday – cheeseburger on bun, fries, broccoli, grapes
    Each is served with skim or 1% milk and juice

    The portions are very small for the upper class kids and few elementary kids eat broccoli and salads. And a lot of times, the food is so spicy that they won’t eat it. This is why I take my lunch. Also we only have 20 minutes from the time we walk in the cafeteria till we leave, so that’s not much time to eat by the time you get your tray and find a seat.

  5. Thank you for asking the questions we all would like to ask but can’t. I wanted to let you know I reblogged this on my own site and I also shared with the newly formed Facebook page “Sensible School Lunches”. Thanks, Trent, for all you do! From a fellow Nebraskan.

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