House votes a $4.5 billion boost for child nutrition, school lunches

The bill makes biggest changes to Child Nutrition Act in half a century. It expands access to school lunch program and lets USDA set child nutrition guidelines for schools. Next stop: Obama's desk.

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    Children eating during school lunch at the International Charter School, in this May 18 file photo.
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Congress took aim at childhood obesity and hunger Thursday with passage of a landmark child nutrition bill.

The bill, formally known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, includes some of the biggest changes to the Child Nutrition Act since the program was started nearly half a century ago.

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The House passed it by a vote of 264 to 157 Thursday. The Senate unanimously approved it in August, and President Obama is expected to sign it soon. Among its provisions:

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• An additional $4.5 billion over 10 years to child nutrition programs – the first time the federal government has increased funding for them in 30 years.

• A 6-cent increase to the $2.68 reimbursement rate that schools get from the federal government for free school meals.

• Authorization for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set nutrition guidelines for all foods sold in a school building, including those in vending machines and à la carte lines.

• Expanded access to school lunch programs, and an expanded after-school meal program.

• Money for farm-to-school programs and school gardens.

“It’s really a historic bill,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “This is not a baby step. This is a huge step forward in improving nutrition for children, especially low-income children.”

The bill adds $4.5 billion in funding – less than half the $10 billion Mr. Obama originally asked for, but still a significant increase. But another important provision is a no-cost one: expanding nutrition guidelines to so-called “competitive foods” found on most school campuses, which are the source of most junk food at schools, say Ms. Wootan and others.

While many schools and districts have some policies about what can be sold in vending machines and cafeterias, this legislation will for the first time allow the USDA to set uniform guidelines for all food sold on school property, throughout the school day. Cutting out most of the sugary drinks kids buy would be a huge step toward tackling obesity, say nutrition experts.

Nearly one-third of American children are overweight or obese, and the problem is attracting growing attention from sources as diverse as first lady Michelle Obama, various celebrity chefs, and the US military, which in April released a study showing that 27 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are too fat to join the armed forces.

This bill, backers say, aims to improve the quality and nutrition of meals kids get in school, while also addressing childhood hunger and improving access to free and reduced-price meals. It will shrink the amount of paperwork to get kids into the program, add about 120,000 more low-income kids a year through direct certification for kids receiving Medicaid, expand a program that offers full meals to kids in after-school care, and will offer some schools in low-income neighborhoods ways to offer free meals to the whole school.

“Childhood hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin,” says Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, speaking with reporters before the bill passed.

Congressman McGovern is among those supporting the bill despite concerns over its funding source. The bill, which is deficit-neutral, gets some of its funding from cuts to food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But bill proponents note that while they hope Congress and the White House will work to find other sources of funding, as they have promised, the SNAP cuts are not as drastic as they might appear. Essentially, the savings come from moving up by a few months a sunset provision on an expansion of benefits that came from the 2009 stimulus package.

Many child nutrition experts say that the bill, though not perfect, is a big step forward.

“The reimbursement rate [increase] alone, at 6 cents, sounds small, but considering it’s the largest investment for the past 37 years, it’s big,” says Tracy Fox, a food consultant in Washington. “It allows us to do things we couldn’t before.”

The bill enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate and has been supported by some industry leaders – including Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other food and beverage companies – that might have been expected to oppose the tougher vending machine standards.

Still, this week it encountered resistance from House Republicans, who on Wednesday delayed a vote through tactical maneuvering.

"It's not about making our children healthy and active," Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota told Associated Press. "We all want to see our children healthy and active. This is about spending and the role of government and the size of government – a debate about whether we're listening to our constituents or not."

In the past month, the GOP's Sarah Palin has lashed out at efforts targeting childhood obesity and criticized Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign as a “nanny state run amok.”

House majority leaders heralded the bill as a major achievement.

“This is the right, moral thing for us to do,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters in a call. “It also has an impact on our competitiveness” as a nation.

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