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Published July 06, 2010, 10:11 AM

Vilsack pushes child nutrition programs

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress July 1 to reauthorize the child nutrition programs this year with a big increase in spending and said a cut might be possible in the popular environmental quality incentives program and other USDA programs to pay for it.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress July 1 to reauthorize the child nutrition programs this year with a big increase in spending and said a cut might be possible in the popular environmental quality incentives program and other USDA programs to pay for it.

“If we don’t do this this year, this is not going to get any easier,” Vilsack told the House Education and Labor Committee.

He added that he thinks no other legislation is more important this year. Delaying the reauthorization until another year, Vilsack said, only would hurt poor children who should have easier access to the meals and all children who should be served healthier food at school. Vilsack also seemed to appeal to the committee’s political instincts, saying that there are many pieces of legislation that the public does not understand, but “moms and dads understand precisely what this bill is about.”

The committee is a considering a bill that Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., has introduced to make it easier for low income children to qualify for free meals and to improve the quality of the meals. Both steps would cost more money, and the bill provides an additional $8 billion for school meal programs in 10 years, but Miller has not identified offsets to pay for the increased cost.

Offsets

The Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a similar bill, but it would increase spending by only $4.5 billion. The Senate bill cuts a food stamp education program, but the larger part of the offset — $2.8 billion in 10 years — would come from the environmental quality incentives program, which farmers and ranchers use to pay for environmental cleanup.

House Educations and Labor ranking member John Kline, R-Minn., said he agrees with the bill’s goals, but is worried that the committee will approve the bill without an offset and “trust the speaker to find the money elsewhere or simply swipe our burgeoning credit card once again.”

But Kline also said that the Minnesota Farm Bureau opposes cutting a USDA conservation program and asked Vilsack if he would support the offsets in the Senate bill. Vilsack said cutting any USDA program cut is like asking him which of his children he likes more. But he said that an audit of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service showing that spending has “outpaced the personnel at NRCS” may indicate that a cut in conservation might be appropriate. But Vilsack also said he thinks that there may be “other dollars” at USDA and outside USDA that could be cut.

“If you give us a target, we will work with you to find that resource,” he said.

Opposition to conservation cuts

A coalition of conservation groups has sent Congress a letter opposing any cut in conservation programs to pay for an increase in children nutrition, but Vilsack’s comment appeared to leave the conservation program more vulnerable as an offset.

NRCS Chief Dave White, who was testifying before a House Agriculture subcommittee, winced when told that Vilsack had mentioned the audit, but said that Vilsack’s comment on personnel referred to the fact that NRCS budget has risen 376 percent since 2002, but its staff is the same size. White said the audit had shown NRCS had deficiencies in its accounting practices and found two cases of noncompliance with laws and regulations, but that the agency is trying to correct those problems.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that the problem stems from Congress unwillingness to increase NRCS’s management staff. The result, Peterson said, is that NRCS technicians who are supposed to be providing technical assistance to farmers also are trying to manage the agency. Peterson said that he had tried in the 2008 farm bill to turn over some NRCS management to the Farm Service Agency, another USDA division, but that he had run into opposition from conservationists. Peterson said he would try to make the management shift in the 2012 farm bill.

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