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Published March 22, 2010, 07:39 AM

Bill would reauthorize nutrition programs

WASHINGTON — Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., unveiled a bill March 17 that would reauthorize the child nutrition programs that would increase funding for school lunch and other programs by $4.5 billion over 10 years, with some of the money coming from the budget for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., unveiled a bill March 17 that would reauthorize the child nutrition programs that would increase funding for school lunch and other programs by $4.5 billion over 10 years, with some of the money coming from the budget for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The bill covers a five-year reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Supplemental Program for Women Infants, and Children known as WIC and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Although USDA operates these programs, this bill is separate from the farm bill, which authorizes the food stamp program as well as farm and conservation programs.

Paying for the bill

Lincoln said the bill would pay for the increased funding for the meals programs through a $2.2 billion shift in the environmental quality assistance program, which would slow immediate spending but index it to inflation in the future, a $1 billion reduction in USDA purchases of commodities for school meal programs and $1.2 billion reduction in the food stamp nutrition education program.

Environmental groups expressed dissatisfaction with the use of the EQIP program to pay for child nutrition programs.

“The farm bill should not be used for offsets,” said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “But if it is going to be used, then the cuts should be distributed in a proportional manner to all titles — commodity, crop insurance, energy and conservation.”

Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said in a news release that he supports the bill, but has “concerns with some of the offsets.”

A spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “There are a multitude of combinations of offsets that can be used to fund this important initiative and we look forward to working with Congress to find appropriate resources.”

The $4.5 billion in increased funding would be divided, with $1.2 billion going to increasing the number of children who receive free and reduced price meals and $3.2 billion going to improvements in the quality of meals and fighting childhood obesity.

The $3.2 billion for improving meal quality would benefit the fruit and vegetable industry. Because the bill determines the foods on which local school districts and the federal governments make their purchases, various sectors within agriculture are expected to fight over the final contents of the bill. In general the campaign to improve diets and reduce obesity would lead to fewer purchases of meat and traditional dairy products and more purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables and low fat dairy products. But the increase in spending would be likely to lead to increased purchases of all types of foods overall. .

The $4.5 billion increase is less than half of the $10 billion-over-10-years increase that President Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2011 budget, but Lincoln said it would provide “a path” to achieve Obama’s goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. The biggest increase in the past has been $500 million over 10 years, Lincoln said in a news release.

Lincoln said she still would like to meet Obama’s $10 billion-over-10-years increase and said she might ask Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to help provide more money for the bill. In the 2008 farm bill, Baucus and then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., provided $10 billion over 10 years for an increase in the food stamp budget by extending the customs user program under which importers pay for inspections. That $10 billion allowed the Agriculture committees to provide more money for nutrition programs without much of a cut in farm programs.

“This legislation will also mark the first time since the inception of the National School Lunch Program that Congress has dedicated this level of resources to increasing the program’s reimbursement rate (the payments that the federal government makes to local schools to pay for school meals),” Lincoln said in the release. “It also invests heavily in new initiatives designed to automatically enroll more eligible low-income children with our National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and includes a major expansion of afterschool feeding programs.”

Nutritional standards

According to Lincoln’s release, the bill would allow localities to be reimbursed for providing after-school meals rather than snacks and allow schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without collecting paper applications. This simplified application process would encourage more children to sign up for the meals and reduce administrative burdens on schools, Lincoln said. The bill also would simplify certification for low-income children in other ways and make foster children categorically eligible for free meals. It also would require school food authorities to coordinate with institutions operating the Summer Food Service Program to develop and distribute materials to families to inform families of the availability and location of summer meal sites and it contains pilot programs to improve the way hungry children get food during out-of-school times.

On the nutrition side, the bill would provide schools that meet new school standards an additional 6 cents per meal. It also gives the ag secretary the authority to establish national nutrition standards for all foods sold on school campus throughout the school day. This provision is likely to be controversial with local school districts that have used money from foods sold in vending machines to pay for school sports programs and with some food companies that fill the machines, but it is a key goal of nutritionists and the Obama administration.

The bill also establishes nutrition requirements for child care providers participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program and provides mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and to source local foods into school cafeterias.

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