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Published March 29, 2010, 08:06 AM

Bill would add funds for nutrition

WASHINGTON — The Senate Agriculture Committee on March 24 approved a bill to reauthorize the child nutrition programs that is likely to increase federal spending on fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy and meat products for school meals programs but also may decrease some spending on the environmental quality incentives programs known as EQIP.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate Agriculture Committee on March 24 approved a bill to reauthorize the child nutrition programs that is likely to increase federal spending on fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy and meat products for school meals programs but also may decrease some spending on the environmental quality incentives programs known as EQIP.

The bill would $4.5 billion increase in funding over 10 years, with $3.2 billion of that money going toward improving the quality of meals and fighting childhood obesity and $1.2 billion would help lift the number of children who receive food.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., noted that the bill provides the biggest increase ever in child nutrition programs and that the bill’s 6-cent increase in payments to schools that improve the quality of school meals is the first increase in the payments to the schools since 1973.

“Hunger is a disease, but it is a disease we have a cure for,” Lincoln said.

The bill falls short of President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget proposal for a $10 billion increase over 10 years to meet his goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Lincoln, who also sits on the Senate Finance Committee, said she would ask Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to try to find more offsets for child nutrition from programs under his jurisdiction, but said she has no total target for total funding for the bill.

What bill does

The bill reauthorizes for five years the meals programs, the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC and the child and adult care feeding program.

The bill also contains provisions to give the Agriculture Department the power to set standards for all foods that can be served in schools, including those sold in vending machines and a la carte lines from which children buy alternatives to the school lunch. It 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 bring local foods into school cafeterias. Its WIC provisions would encourage low-income women participants to breast feed.

The increases in funding would be offset by a $1 billion decrease in school food purchases, a $1.2 billion decrease in grants to states to teach food stamp recipients healthier eating habits and a $2.2 billion decrease in the authorization levels for EQIP, which is used by farmers and ranchers to address environmental problems. Lincoln noted that appropriators have been cutting EQIP and maintained that the bill would “lock in” EQIP funding by assuring a slow rate of growth in the program, but other senators said there was nothing to prevent appropriators from continuing to make cuts.

The committee rejected by 11 to 10 an amendment offered by Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to shift the offset to the Conservation Stewardship Program, another USDA environmental program, and to provide an additional $100 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which distributes commodities, and $275 million over five years for summer feeding programs. Chambliss argued that demand was higher for EQIP than for CSP, but Lincoln and Senate Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Chairman Tom Harkin, who created CSP when he chaired the Agriculture committee, opposed the amendment. Eleven Democrats on the committee voted against it, while all nine Republicans voted for it. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., took an initial pass on the amendment vote, but later changed his vote to support the Republican amendment.

At a joint news conference with Lincoln after the markup, Chambliss said he supports the bill, but will offer his amendment to change offsets on the floor. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said he would offer a floor amendment to cut direct payments to farmers to provide more money for the summer feeding program and for transportation for rural children to summer feeding program sites. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., offered and withdrew an amendment to ban transfats in school foods, but said she would offer it on the floor.

The Environmental Working Group had said that direct payments and crop insurance subsidies should be cut to pay for all the increases in child nutrition programs, but the committee did not take up that issue.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., will try to mark up the bill before Memorial Day, a House Democratic aide said. Lincoln so far has used offsets from farm bill programs under her jurisdiction, but it will be more difficult for Miller to identify offsets because his committee does not have jurisdiction over the farm bill.

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