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Lincoln champions childhood nutrition

Can Blanche Lincoln improve school lunch? The Arkansas Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee is trying mightily.

First, she rounded up bipartisan support for a bill with an additional $4.5 billion in funding, the first increase in money for child nutrition programs in 30 years. But with the Senate's crowded legislative schedule, she couldn't secure floor time for a vote on the bill. So Lincoln did what senators do. She sent a nice letter to President Obama politely asking that he show "leadership" on this issue. After all, Obama did promise on the campaign trail to end childhood hunger by 2015. First lady Michelle Obama has made ending childhood obesity her signature campaign.

No dice.

Lincoln is right to be concerned about the bill – and not only because she is in a tough election race back in Arkansas, where childhood obesity rates are at crisis levels. If the bill doesn't pass and get to President Obama's desk by Sept. 30 – something that's increasingly iffy with just 20 days of legislative days left – the programs risk losing the new funding in the short term -- and possibly for good. (The Agriculture Committee will have to find new offsets when a new bill is introduced next session.)

So Lincoln started to play hardball.

On July 22, she created a stir on the Senate floor by voting against everything in an attempt to persuade Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to consider the child nutrition bill.

On Wednesday, she took to the floor again:

We have since been patiently waiting for this critical legislation to see the light of day on the Senate floor. Well, Mr. President, the days of patiently waiting are coming to an end as the Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize these programs rapidly approaches. That is why I stand here today asking this body to make an investment in our children and dedicate just eight hours of floor time to take up and pass this legislation… Is this too much to ask? Can we not dedicate just eight hours to an effort that will change a generation for the better? I know that hard-working parents in Arkansas and across this country don’t think it is too much to ask. Mr. President, I will continue my fight to see that this body does right by our kids, passes this legislation, and improves the health of the next generation of Americans.

Fightin' words. But she yielded the floor in absence of a quorum.

At a press conference on Thursday, Sen. Lincoln called once more for the Senate to pass the bill. She was joined by by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), among others, and school children dressed as fruit and vegetables.

"As a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, I know the difficulties in moving nutrition legislation," Sen. Lugar said. "This bill was approved by the committee in March. There has been no significant opposition since then. For many children from low income homes, food from child nutrition programs may provide the bulk of the nutrition they receive during the day...Given our economic climate, we should seize this moment to pass the bill.”

The bill still has not been scheduled for a vote.

Why the holdup? The bill is bipartisan. And it's paid for. The administration has made a priority of talking about the importance of childhood obesity and nutrition -- Michelle Obama has held photo op after photo op, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said childhood nutrition is his number-one priority. But as Sen. Lincoln's legislative acrobatics show, that may not be enough.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  July 30, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, school lunch  
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