Congressman proposes $8 billion for child nutrition
With Food Network star Rachael Ray at his side, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) unveiled a bill on Thursday that proposes about $8 billion in additional funding over 10 years for child nutrition programs, including school breakfast and lunch.
The programs have been the main focus of Michelle Obama’s high-profile Let’s Move campaign, which aims to end childhood obesity within a generation. About one-third of American children are overweight or obese, and, in difficult economic times, a growing number of children depend on school meals as a key source of healthful food.
The bill, dubbed the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010, (pdf) is similar to a Senate bill that is awaiting a floor vote. It mandates that the Department of Agriculture develop strict nutrition standards for foods sold in vending machines and in so-called a la carte lines. It also requires that only low-fat milk be sold in the lunch line.
Like the Senate measure, which proposes a $4.5 billion increase in funding, the House bill includes an additional six cents for each school lunch that meets federal standards. But it also asks for an additional half a cent per lunch to fund nutrition education, which might include student taste tests or redesigning a cafeteria to encourage students to make healthier choices. It also provides start-up grants for school breakfast programs and year-round meal service in some states.
“This legislation creates a nutritional safety net for millions of children who rely on the child nutrition programs by meeting children’s nutritional needs at every step along the way -- in school, on the weekends and during the summer," Rep. Miller said in a statement. (To view video excerpts of the news conference, click here.)
Some food reform advocates say far more money will be required to overhaul the burgers and tater tots that are the mainstays of many school cafeterias. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Alice Waters famously said schools needed $5 per lunch per student, almost twice the $2.68 they receive from the federal government for students that qualify for a free lunch. A coalition of food reformers, including "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper, is lobbying for $1 more per child per lunch.
This bill's proposed increase is close to the $10 billion President Obama called for in his 2010 budget. If passed, the law would represent the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased the federal reimbursement rate for school meals.
“Their position is this is a historic bill, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington public health advocacy group. “We’ve been trying to get junk food out of vending machines for a decade. And we’ve been trying to get whole milk out of schools for 15 years. Even though the reimbursement isn’t as high as some people would like, it’s a significant increase. This is a huge step forward.”
Many advocates cheered the proposed increase in funding. The sustainable agriculture lobby cheered $50 million in mandatory funding for farm-to-school programs. The School Nutrition Association applauded the new professional standards for cafeteria workers.
But whether the House can find the money to pay for it remains in question. Unlike the Senate, which proposes enough cuts in other programs to pay for the increase, the House Education and Labor Committee, which Miller chairs, has found only $1 billion so far. To pass its version, it will need to persuade other committees, such as the House Agriculture Committee, to help fund its proposal.
Also in doubt is whether Congress will find the time to bring a final bill to a vote. The legislation that currently funds child nutrition programs is set to expire on Sept. 30. If Congress does not take action on the proposals, it will instead pass an extension to continue the current funding. To get a bill to the president’s desk, advocates say, votes on both the House and Senate versions must happen before the August recess.
“An extension is the worst possible outcome,” said CSPI’s Wootan. “You get none of the reforms or the expansion in benefits. Basically, you get stuck with what we have now.”
-- Jane Black
June 10, 2010; 2:15 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, school lunch
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