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Senator proposes $4.5 billion for child nutrition

For more than a year, advocates of school food reform have been calling for more money to improve school lunch. Today, they're one step closer to getting it, but some say the amount is far less than they had hoped.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) unveiled a bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 would boost funding by $4.5 billion over 10 years. That's less than half of the $10 billion President Obama called for in his budget. But it would be the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased the federal reimbursement rate for school meals.

“This proposal is a monumental step forward as we work to end childhood hunger and address the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States," Lincoln said in a statement. The new funding, she noted, would be nine times more than the increase in 2004 of $500 million over 10 years.

The bill would allocate $1.2 billion to increase the number of children receiving food, an effort to meet President Obama's pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015. The remaining $3.2 billion would be used to improve the quality of meals. This includes an extra 6 cents per meal per student for schools that meet new, stricter nutrition standards and funding for schools to establish school gardens and to source local foods.

The bill also would mandate that the Department of Agriculture develop nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, not just what is served in the lunch line. Standards for so-called "competitive foods" have long been controversial in previous years. Some school districts argued that the money earned from vending machines and a la carte lines helped to support sports and arts programs. Food companies were concerned about losing access to millions of school children. But, Lincoln said in a conference call with reporters, this time, "there was a lot of common ground around that."

Public health advocates applauded the bill. "They seem to hit on the key issues: strengthening wellness policies and adjusting what's in the vending machines," said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

And the funding?

"Budgets are tight and we're pleased that there's an increase in funding," she said.

Some food reform advocates, however, had hoped for far more. In an Op-Ed 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.

"It's not enough to really transform the way school lunch works," said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Foods USA, which joined Cooper in asking for the extra $1 per lunch. "It's great that competitive foods will be under jurisdiction of the USDA. It's great they increased reimbursement rate a little bit. But we're talking about pennies."

When asked about coming up with less than half the funding President Obama had called for, Lincoln was pragmatic.

"If the sky were the limit I'd go for it," she said. "But the fact is we need to pass this bill."

Prospects for passage appear good, Hill sources say. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking minority member on the Agriculture Committee, will sign on as a co-sponsor, Lincoln said. On the House side, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, issued a statement promising to work with Lincoln on the bill. "Senator Lincoln's focus on improving access and nutrition quality rightfully address many of the concerns I often hear from parents, stakeholders and school leaders," he said.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  March 17, 2010; 5:30 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, school lunch  
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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 as would be expected by a $4.5 billion increase in funding.

I am distressed that this bill which represents child nutrition programs besides the NSLP doesn't do more for the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Research shows that the first three years of life are the period of most rapid brain and body growth. As a consequence very young children and preschoolers are uniquely vulnerable to deprivation. CACFP provides an opportunity to support the nutritional needs of low-income children, helps prevent childhood obesity and helps keep child care affordable for working parents. Many low-income working parents rely on the CACFP to provide safe and healthy care.

Having listened to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsak clearly state the link between early nutrition programs and 1)national security, 2) economic stimulus, 3) education, 4) health care, and 5) hunger; I was hoping for more improvements for the CACFP.

We need to begin at the beginning and not overlook the importance and impact of the CACFP. This bill should add some provisions to improve the CACFP in a meaningful manner that will improve access and stop the decline in support to caregivers by the loss of sponsoring organizations.

We support the President's commitment to end childhood hunger by 2015 by investing an additional - $1 billion per year for 10 years. (The chairman's mark is proposing $4.5 billion over 10 years.)

The mark does not go far enough and many children will be left behind.

Posted by: pjamescal | March 19, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

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