Meet the USDA’s Kevin Concannon: Long Title, Simple Strategy

You check out this blog because you love food that gives you what you need: good health and an enjoyable life. We’re all trying to find the balance between the two, and from diet systems and workout routines to vitamin regimens and spa treatments, we’re all looking for guidance on how best to achieve our goals. That’s why systems like Guiding Stars are so successful: they’re beacons lighting the path toward healthy choices.

I recently had a talk with Kevin Concannon, the Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and I learned that there’s another entity trying to make your healthy lifestyle easier: the federal government. While that may be surprising to some, supporting the well-being of Americans–and children in particular–has been an important mission of the USDA since the Great Depression. Since healthy children grow up to be vibrant, well-educated, and capable adults, the entire country benefits from good nutrition. And given the fact that the U.S. obesity rate is fast approaching 50% and one in four Americans receives some sort of direct benefit from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, Mr. Concannon is a very busy man.

Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Often, any government agency’s efforts to influence its populace is met with resistance; the choice of what we put into our mouths is a personal freedom most want left alone. But considering the scope and focus of the initiatives Concannon’s office is introducing–from the new MyPlate graphic (replacing the borderline-incomprehensible Food Pyramid) to the healthy changes you may have noticed on your child’s school lunch menu–it’s clear to me that the government is not in the business of controlling our choices. Rather, the USDA is working hard to help us make more informed decisions. Concannon’s goal is to create “actionable approaches;” from easier-to-understand nutrition labeling to supporting a return to scratch-cooked and locally-sourced foods in schools, Concannon’s initiatives are all aimed at facilitating–and legitimizing–simple and healthy eating.

Empowered by the passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act late last year, Concannon’s office is making sweeping changes to the quality, availability, and nutrition of the food the nation’s children eat when they’re at school. Providing free breakfast to all school children, regardless of income, is one example I’ve seen in my town. To facilitate the movement toward more local food purchases for schools, the USDA operates a facility in Maryland that trains school nutrition workers and state consultants on the bulk buying and increased use of agricultural products from local sources. Likewise, his office is providing simple resources such as recipes to make the job of creating healthier meals easier. As Concannon visits schools around the country, he’s hearing from school staff that the guidance his agency is providing is not just improving food service: it’s simplifying everything from health and behavior problems to attendance. “School nurse(s) are reporting fewer kids with headaches…and stomachaches,” he reported. “Once you get rid of all the sugar-sweetened beverages…you don’t have all these kids jacked up.” Kids are more ready to learn, allowing communities to get the most out of their investments in education.

My own experience as a chef participant in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative supports Concannon’s conclusion. Our efforts to expose kids to tasty whole foods prepared in kid-friendly ways has yielded a few surprising insights: 1) kids have open minds as long as it’s not too complicated; 2) young kids can communicate how a food makes them feel if you ask them, and 3) kids are a portal to the home and they can directly influence an entire family’s diet when provided with clear and simple information. So, I’ve worked hard to increase food literacy in the students I work with, from explaining label reading to explaining how different colored fruits and vegetables impart unique health benefits. The feedback I’m receiving from my work is similar to Concannon’s: sometimes a little knowledge–perhaps just a list or a sticker–is all that’s needed to effect real and lasting change.

Similarly, Concannon explained that his programs use simple visual cues to simplify healthy decision making. Much like the Guiding Stars labels you might see at the grocery store, the government’s WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) uses shelf labels to identify healthy foods that program participants may purchase.  Concannon remarked, “Any guidance you can get along the idea of, ‘Hey, is this a healthy food?’ is important and authentic, solid guidance.” Moms trying to make healthy choices just have to look for the WIC-Approved label below the food at the store. Keeping it simple is key, he continued, “and programs like Guiding Stars that help inform parents are really important. One does not have to become a professional nutritionist or professional chef to be able to look and see that a food gets a one, two, or three star rating. Hey, I use those things myself.”

So whether it’s the USDA’s new nutrition graphic, a Guiding Star or WIC shelf label, or a vegetable index card a kindergartner shares with her parents, sometimes simple direction is all that’s needed to make healthier decisions. In the coming weeks, I will share more about what I learned from Under Secretary Concannon–how scratch cooking in school lunch programs saves districts money while improving nutrition, how you can fight for better food in your own child’s school and how the USDA’s nutrition programs help your community’s economy while improving everyone’s health. I think you’ll find, like I did, that Concannon’s efforts are giving all Americans the ultimate freedom: to avail ourselves of solid, research-backed information and guidance in our pursuit of good health and an enjoyable life.