Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. U.S shoppers loosened their purse strings in December boosting prospects for stronger economic growth in 2011.
According to the Commerce Department, retail sales rose 0.6 percent last month to $381 billion. That leaves the key economic barometer more than 13 percent above the recession low endured in December of 2008.
The improvement marked the sixth consecutive monthly gain and it pushed retail sales for all of 2010 up nearly 7 percent, in the largest annual increase in more than a decade.
For retailers, 2010 culminated in the best holiday shopping season in four years as the International Council of Shopping Centers announced revenue rose 3.8 percent from November through December.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department reported its Consumer Price Index rose 0.5 percent in December. That's its largest increase in 18 months, but it was fueled -- in large part -- by higher gasoline prices.
Apart from the volatile food and energy sectors, however, so called, core inflation was up just 0.1 percent last month.
With consumers spending more and inflation in check just about everywhere but the pump, some analysts are revising their forecasts for economic expansion in 2011.
Since consumer spending accounts for more than 2/3 of U.S. economic activity, the Obama administration will likely seize Friday's reports as evidence his economic policies are working. But even as one arm of the administration concerns itself with economic prosperity, other departments are concerned over physical vitality. To that end, the Agriculture Department this week unveiled its first overhaul of the nation's school lunch program in 15 years.
Nearly 32 million kids participate in school meal programs every day. USDA hopes the proposed changes will improve the health of youth nationwide and help address the growing problem of childhood obesity.
In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "With many children consuming as many as half their daily calories at school, strengthening nutritional standards is an important step in the Obama administration's effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the health and wellbeing of all our kids."
USDA's new guidelines apply only to lunches subsidized by the federal government. Schools would be required to cut sodium in the meals by more than half, and to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to the menu. The guidelines also would limit kids to one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so schools couldn't offer things like french fries every day.
While many schools are improving meals already, others are still serving children meals high in fat, salt and calories. The new guidelines are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
According to USDA, about a third of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese. And the number of obese children has tripled over the past few decades.
The proposed guidelines come just weeks after President Barack Obama signed into law a child nutrition bill that will help schools pay for the healthier foods, which often are more expensive.
Some groups have criticized efforts to make meals healthier, saying it will be hard for financially strapped schools to pay for the new requirements. Vilsack says he understands the new standards may pose some challenges for school districts, but he believes they are necessary. He compares obesity, and related diseases like diabetes, to a truck barreling toward a child, and the new guidelines to a parent teaching that child to look both ways before crossing the street.