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Published September 21, 2010, 08:39 AM

Bill boosting child nutrition program met by questions of how to fund it

WASHINGTON — The United Fresh Produce Association is urging passage of a child nutrition bill that would increase purchases of fruits and vegetables for the child nutrition program by Sept. 30, but the prospects are complicated by disagreements in the House of Representatives and among advocates over how to pay for the bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The United Fresh Produce Association is urging passage of a child nutrition bill that would increase purchases of fruits and vegetables for the child nutrition program by Sept. 30, but the prospects are complicated by disagreements in the House of Representatives and among advocates over how to pay for the bill.

The House leadership is trying to figure out whether to bring the child nutrition bill to the floor before the child nutrition programs expire on Sept. 30, but House members and nutrition and anti-hunger advocates are debating whether to offset the cost of the bill by using a $4.5 billion cut in food stamps over 10 years that the Senate used to pass the same bill unanimously this summer. Under congressional budgetary rules, an increase is one program must be offset by a decrease in another program.

First lady Michelle Obama has made the five-year reauthorization of child nutrition program a signature issue and, in a recent speech in New Orleans, urged quick passage. President Obama’s budget initially called for a $10 billion increase over 10 years, but the White House praised the Senate bill when it passed, using a combination of cuts in the food stamp benefit, increases in the economic recovery act and nutrition education money as an offset.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a member of the House leadership, said Sept. 15 leaders had discussed the issue in detail at a meeting the day before but had reached no resolution. The main issue, Cardoza said after a speech to the United Fresh Produce Association, is whether to use the food stamp offset that the Senate had used.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an e-mail Sept. 15, “We are working with the White House to pass this critical legislation.”

Boosting school lunch

Both the House and Senate bills would increase spending on the school lunch program so that schools could buy more fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and low fat dairy and meat products. They also would place controls on the sale of foods in vending machines. Both bills also would provide more money for poor children to get free and reduced price meals, but advocates say that the House bill, which the House Education and Labor Committee passed with a Congressional Budget Office estimate of an $8 billion cost over 10 years, would provide more food for the hungry.

On Aug. 13, after the Senate passed the bill, more than 100 House members led by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., wrote Pelosi that they hoped she would identify a different offset on the House side.

“This is one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and is a vote we do not take lightly,” House members wrote.

Opposing viewpoints

Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center said that 1,600 anti-hunger groups also are opposing passage of the child nutrition bill using the food stamp offset and think the House should pass its own bill and go to conference. Weill said that if there is not time to identify another offset before Congress leaves for the elections, it would be better to pass a short-term extension and take up the issue in the lame-duck session.

But Lorelei DiSogra, the vice president for nutrition and health at United Fresh, is taking the opposite position. In a speech to her group, which has been in Washington on for its annual policy conference, she noted that most of the members who object to the use of food stamps as an offset voted for the Medicare and teachers’ jobs bill that used a much bigger food stamp cut to pay for it. DiSogra urged fruit and vegetable growers to tell members of the House that they should pass the Senate bill before the Sept. 30 expiration date. DiSogra said “there is a lot of angst” among members but she added that she thinks the House “will have to pass the Senate bill.”

DiSogra also said that the House leadership did not appreciate pressure from the first lady last week and has asked her and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to back off for a week. But DiSogra said that if the House does not pass the bill in a week, the White House should resume its pressure.

Margo Wooton, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, also said she and others in a nutrition alliance favor quick passage. Wooton said that the food stamp money already has been identified as an offset and will be used for something else if it does not go to school meals.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food preparers, favors passage, but objects to a provision in both bills that would require increases in school lunch prices for middle class children. A spokeswoman said that many parents cannot afford an increase in school lunch prices in the middle of the recession.

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