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Published October 05, 2010, 10:52 AM

Child nutrition program bill will be addressed following election

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives failed to reauthorize the child nutrition programs with a big increase in funding for school lunch programs before leaving for a recess, but a key House Democratic aide said Sept. 29 that House leadership “will push hard for a vote in the lame duck” session after the election and a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also said the Obama administration would push Congress to finish the bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives failed to reauthorize the child nutrition programs with a big increase in funding for school lunch programs before leaving for a recess, but a key House Democratic aide said Sept. 29 that House leadership “will push hard for a vote in the lame duck” session after the election and a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also said the Obama administration would push Congress to finish the bill.

The Senate had passed a bill reducing future food stamp benefits by $2.2 billion to pay for part of a $4.5 billion increase in the school meal budget over 10 years, but anti-hunger advocates and more than 100 Democratic House members objected to reducing food stamps to pay for school meals.

Spending shift

The shift in spending would have some affect on food purchases because it would reduce the amount of money low income families have to spend in grocery stores while increasing the amount schools have to spend on fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and lowfat dairy and meat products. The bill also would give the Agriculture secretary power over the contents of vending machines in the schools. Vilsack has said he would discourage high calorie, sugary items.

Vilsack campaigned for the bill for weeks, saying he doubted the Senate would revisit the bill if the House passed it with a different funding source. Vilsack said Sept. 29 that the bill would provide schools with money to buy healthier food for the 31 million children who eat school meals and also make those meals and summer meals available to more low income children.

He noted that, while there are active programs that promote healthy eating, schools cannot afford to buy healthier foods if their food budgets are not increased. The bill, he noted, would provide a six cent increase in reimbursement to schools for each meal served, which would be the first noninflationary increase for school meals in 30 years.

The bill’s $4.5 billion increase in school meal expenditures was less than the Obama administration’s initial goal of a $10 billion increase over 10 years and less than the bill passed by the House Education and Labor Committee that would increase spending by $8 billion over 10 years.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., did not come up with any offsets, however, and, through a spokeswoman, recently endorsed passage of the Senate bill, saying that he had gotten commitments from the White House.

Miller’s office did not say what those commitments were, but Vilsack said recently he had promised to use USDA’s authorities to increase spending on school meals as much as possible beyond appropriated amounts and that he also would continue efforts to encourage people who are eligible for food stamps to apply for them.

Vilsack said, though the recession has led people to apply for food stamps, USDA deserves credit for its efforts to push states such as Texas and Florida, where participation rates have been lower than the U.S. average, to make it easier for people to get food stamp benefits.

“We are doing a good job on this front,” Vilsack said.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said he was “saying a novena” that the House would act on the bill.

Although anti-hunger advocates led by the Food Research and Action Center and progressive Democrats have said cutting food stamps to pay for the child nutrition bill is “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Concannon noted the offset would not make it harder for eligible recipients to get food stamps and the cut in benefit levels, which had been increased in the economic stimulus bill to provide more food to people during the recess, would not go into effect until 2013.

A coalition of more than 80 nutrition groups, including the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association, released a statement in which Congressional Budget Office figures show that failure to pass the bill would mean schools will miss out on $1.86 million in funding each year and fewer low income children will be served free meals. The groups noted the increase in food stamp benefits in the stimulus bill had lasted longer than Congress intended because food inflation has been slow and the bill contained a provision that said the increased benefit level would remain in effect until it is absorbed by the program’s inflationary increases.

But FRAC said its campaign to stop the use of the food stamp offset also had won more followers. The American Federation of Teachers and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights joined other church and union groups, FRAC said in an email.

Authorization of the child nutrition programs, including school meals, the special nutrition programs for women, infants and children known as WIC and other feeding programs, expired Sept. 30, but were extended by the resolution that will fund the government until Congress returns.

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