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Published March 08, 2010, 07:22 AM

Lincoln plans to increase nutrition spending

WASHINGTON — Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said March 3 she is planning the biggest increase ever in child nutrition programs, but battles between ag groups already have broken out over how the reauthorization of school meals programs might change what the government buys.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said March 3 she is planning the biggest increase ever in child nutrition programs, but battles between ag groups already have broken out over how the reauthorization of school meals programs might change what the government buys.

President Obama has proposed a $1 billion per year increase in child nutrition programs, which include school meals, the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC and programs to feed children in day care centers. Lincoln said the biggest increase in the past in children nutrition programs has been a little less than $500 million over 10 years. It’s unclear exactly how much Lincoln will propose, but she said it will be less than what Obama has suggested. Lincoln also said she wants to hold a markup before this congressional work period ends March 26.

After speaking to the School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal preparers, Lincoln said in an interview that she wants to provide as big an increase as possible for child nutrition.

But “it would be hard to go to $1 billion” in the current economy. “We’ll get as close as we can,” Lincoln said, adding that she wants to increase the per-meal payments to schools because the preparers “can’t keep doing what they are doing” with the current budget.

Setting priorities

In her speech, Lincoln said her priorities are to make sure that all children eligible for child nutrition programs are participating in them, to improve meal quality and to shift delivery of the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC benefits to electronic benefit cards, the system already used for the supplemental nutrition assistance program that used to be known as food stamps.

Lincoln and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a former Senate Agriculture Committee and longtime nutrition advocate, both told the group they want to simply application processes for school meal programs. Lugar also said it is important to make school meals healthier because Navy recruiters have told him that obesity is a major factor in rejecting applicants for the military.

First lady Michelle Obama made the same point when she addressed the group March 1, noting that President Truman started the school lunch program in 1946 because the military had rejected potential soldiers during World War II because they were malnourished, but that the issue behind rejection today is obesity. She also noted that 66 retired generals, admirals and other senior military leaders — including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — sent a letter to Congress supporting the anti-obesity effort.

‘Fresh’ dispute

Meanwhile, anticipating changes in the bill, National Council for Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said in a news release March 2 that, while the goal of increasing consumption of friends and vegetables “is one that every American should support . . . the science is clear on this issue — there is no nutritional difference between fresh, canned, dried or frozen fruits and vegetables, and thus no special preference should be given to any specific form in federal food assistance programs.”

United Fresh Produce Association CEO Tom Stenzel said in an e-mail, “Schools have already made it abundantly clear that they want to improve the quality, taste and appeal of school meals with more high quality fresh produce to kids, so they’re the ones making that choice. I wish those few folks who seem so worried about the prospect of kids eating more fresh produce in schools would join us in putting more energy behind increasing reimbursement rates rather than protecting their own turf.”

A spokesman for Conner, who served as deputy agriculture secretary in the Bush administration, said the farmer co-ops have not adopted a formal position on the payment rate for school meals, “but we recognize that meeting the expanded goals of the program will call for additional resources.

Ruth Saunders of the International Dairy Foods Association told the School Nutrition Association March 1 that her members are prepared to provide lower-fat milk, cheeses and pizzas to the schools but that those foods cost more to produce. Lower-calorie flavored milk requires different ingredients than flavored whole milk, Saunders said. She added that under USDA rules, if an artificial sweetener is added, the product cannot be called milk.

Dividing up money

While Obama called for a $1 billion-per-year increase in the child nutrition programs, but when advocates for school meals, child care feeding programs and the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC testified before the House Education and Labor Committee March 2, they did not ask for specific dollar increases or suggest where Congress might find the offsets to provide the money.

The hearing March 2 was the first official event in what is likely to be a months-long drama over how to divide up any increase among the programs and how to improve nutrition if Congress can’t find more money. The debate also will provoke fights between food groups that are likely to lose federal dollars and those that are likely to gain and between groups that want strict national nutrition standards and those that want to leave such decisions up to states and localities.

The child nutrition programs expired Sept. 30, 2009, but Congress extended them for one year with plans for a five-year reauthorization this year.

Marshall Matz, a lobbyist for the School Nutrition Association, which is composed of 55,000 school meal preparers, told the group at a lobbying rally March 2 that members of Congress are feeling pressured by the budget and that they should avoid details when asking for more money.

“Our goal is to chart a course,” Matz said. “Don’t negotiate the dollars. Whether we get the whole billion I don’t know. I think we need more than that.”

Fighting fat

Although the School Nutrition Association notes in its legislative agenda that the current $2.68 federal payment for low-income children’s school lunch is 35 cents below the cost of production, School Nutrition Association President Dora Rivas, executive director of food services in Dallas, told the committee she recognized “the challenge” Congress faces in increasing funding. But she also asked for a series of changes in regulations that would allow more children to participate in the free meal program and provide more money to buy healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products.

Carolyn Morrison, president of the National Child and Adult Care Program Forum, which represents day care institutions that provide meals to 3 million low income children each day, said some providers decline to participate because rules are complicated and urged a streamlining so that more children in day care would get proper nutrition.

Kiran Saluja, testifying on behalf of the National WIC Association, said the best way to confront childhood obesity is to encourage breastfeeding and said mothers could be encouraged to breastfeed by giving them an extra $2 in each WIC breastfeeding package to buy fruits and vegetables.

Saluja also noted, however, that some hospitals encourage the use of infant formula that they are “breastfeeding broken.”

Saluja urged the committee to work with Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means to compel hospitals that receive Medicaid funds to “not sabotage breastfeeding.”

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