US Ag Secretary Vilsack visits Clear Lake High School to celebrate healthy meals award

CLEAR LAKE — US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Clear Lake Monday afternoon celebrating the recent announcement that Clear Lake High School was one of four school districts nationwide to receive the “Healthy Meals Incentives Recognition Awards” for their innovative efforts to improve the nutritional quality of meals for their students. Clear Lake was recognized for reducing sodium in their menu items through creative strategies such as sourcing low-or-no-sodium products, increasing the use of fresh local foods, and enhancing flavors with custom spice blends.

Vilsack says it’s challenging for school districts to do these types of projects.  “We know that this is not easy. We know that often times it’s difficult for schools with tight budgets. Often times because of the pandemic, there were supply chain and continue to be supply chain challenges. So the nutrition folks at school do an amazing job.”

Vilsack says they wanted to make sure that USDA continues to find ways to help schools be able to do a better job of feeding their children well.  “That meant us utilizing resources from the Commodity Credit Corporation, which is an entity the provides us capacity to buy food or make resources available to schools to buy food locally. So we’ve done several billion dollars of that assistance in help over the last several years across America to help school districts do a little bit better job of dealing with a very tough situation.”

Vilsack says his department felt it was important to lift up the school districts like Clear Lake that were doing a good job to show other school districts that programs like this can work in their lunchrooms.  “That’s why I’m here today, because I happen to be in one of the school districts that’s top of the class. As a result, we’ve provided the school district a little extra resource, and that in turn was used by the school district to expand their storage capacity, refrigeration capacity, so they are in a position to do a little bit more with fruits and vegetables and get more direct connection with the community, which every school district is interested in doing.”

Clear Lake Community School District food service director Julie Udelhofen says they’ve been able to take advantage of grants over the last couple of years.  “In August 2023, we were awarded the Healthy Meals Incentive Grant. With the equipment portion of that grant, we installed a walk-in freezer in our middle school, we updated our serving line so that we could serve salad items every day, and we purchased a food processor for each of our three kitchens so we could slice, dice, grate and all the things we needed to do to make processing local foods easier.”

Udelhofen says to earn the award, the food service lowered sodium by offering unprocessed or minimally processed foods daily.  “We’ve created custom blended salt-free seasonings that bring out the flavor of the wide array of veggies we serve. When purchasing processed items, we opt for the low-salt or no-salt items. We serve only whole-grain enriched foods and keep consumption of sugar in check. We procure fruit packed in juice or extra-light syrup only.”

The award program was jointly created by the USDA and Action for Healthy Kids as part of the USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative.