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Published September 28, 2010, 10:06 AM

Child nutrition bill awaits action as program expires Sept. 30

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives left the Capitol without acting on a child nutrition bill that would increase purchases of fruits and vegetables, whole grain, low-fat dairy and meat products for the schools, but the bill could come up again before the child nutrition programs expire on Sept. 30.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives left the Capitol without acting on a child nutrition bill that would increase purchases of fruits and vegetables, whole grain, low-fat dairy and meat products for the schools, but the bill could come up again before the child nutrition programs expire on Sept. 30.

The White House and healthy food advocates are putting pressure on the House to pass the Senate bill before the programs expire Sept. 30, but more than 100 House members and anti-hunger advocates are balking at the offset. The Senate bill would increase spending on school meals programs by $4.5 billion over 10 years and give the agriculture secretary authority over the food in vending machines in schools.

A group of 110 retired generals and admirals joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Sept 21. in urging the House to pass the reauthorization before programs expire.

Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett and Vilsack said reducing obesity is a matter of national security because the military rejects many young people because they are overweight or obese.

An estimated 9 million young adults — 27 percent of Americans age 17 to 24 — are too overweight to join the military, according to report issued by the retired generals and admirals group, which is called Mission Readiness.

Barnett said it is “a tragedy” that the military must reject otherwise qualified young people and warned that as the economy improves, military recruiters might have trouble reaching their targets unless youth obesity is addressed.

Pushing for passage

The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents fruit and vegetable producers, is urging the House to pass the bill, but more than 100 House members have written House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that they oppose cutting food stamp benefits to pay for the child nutrition bill. Rep. Jim McGovern’s willingness to consider commitments to restore the foods could provide the leaders an opening because he is cochairman of the Congressional Hunger Center and House Hunger Caucus.

At a Sept. 22 Bipartisan Policy Center conference on nutrition, McGovern, D-Mass., said he is disappointed the Obama administration did not insist on its original goal of a $10 billion increase in child nutrition spending over 10 years and did not search for a different offset. “SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and formal name for food stamps) is being used as an ATM,” McGovern said, referring to congressional passage earlier this summer of a teachers’ pay and jobs bill that used a $12 billion reduction in food stamp benefits beginning in April 2014 as an offset. The child nutrition bill would reduce benefits on Nov. 1, 2013.

McGovern also said if the Obama administration, House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and the House leadership “give us something” to assure the funds will be restored, he would consider voting for the bill. Through a spokesman, he later added, “The administration can play a very, very helpful role in finding offsets.”

Robin Schepper, executive director of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative who also spoke at the conference, said she would take McGovern’s message to the Domestic Policy Council.

Marshall Matz, a lawyer who represents the School Nutrition Association, which is composed of school meal preparers, and anti-hunger groups, said he could envision a “child nutrition corrections” bill that also could address a provision in the Senate bill that gives the agriculture secretary authority to set meal prices nationwide. Matz said school meal leaders are concerned that an increase in prices would reduce the number of children who eat school lunch.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Public Human Services Association and other groups have sent letters to Congress opposing use of the food stamp offset. But the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which had opposed use of conservation funds as an offset, urged passage of the bill.

Crunching numbers

Although there have been reports that the bill would cut $4.5 billion from food stamp benefits, a USDA official explained in a memo recently that the bill would cut only $2.2 billion directly from food stamp benefits, with another $1.3 billion coming from a restructuring of a nutrition education program for food stamp beneficiaries and another $1.1 billion coming from a provision that allows the ag secretary to include the value of surplus commodity purchases in the school lunch budget.

The memo notes that the stimulus raised the food stamp benefit level by 13.6 percent with the expectation that food price inflation would catch up to the increase by the end of fiscal year 2013. But food price inflation has been low, and USDA estimates benefit levels with increased purchasing power would continue until 2017.

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