Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Senate Committee Unanimously Approves Bill To Improve School Nutrition Programs

Bipartisan support for good food...
First Lady Michelle Obama's year of calling attention to the need for much healthier school foods paid off on the Hill today, when the bipartisan Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry voted to unanimously approve Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln's (D-Ark) Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010.

The legislation covers a five-year reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Supplemental Program for Women Infants, and Children, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and provides $4.5 billion in new funding over ten years. (Above: Lincoln)

The Bill is focused on ending hunger and child obesity simultaneously, by improving access to school feeding programs that have healthier foods in them. It meets many of the goals of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign; the First Lady has been a staunch advocate for healthier school breakfast and lunch foods, more after school nutrition programs, and ensuring that all kids who qualify can take advantage of the programs by reducing bureaucratic red tape. There's also a component in the legislation that mandates school gardens and sourcing school foods from local farms.

Before the vote, Sen. Lincoln called the bill "a good start," but gave a warning to her fellow committee members.

“I recognize that more work remains to be done," Lincoln said in her opening statement.

The bill has been the subject of dismay for school lunch advocates, because it would provide only a 6-cent increase in reimbursements to schools for free and low-cost lunches. It's the first increase in the reimbursement rate for the school lunch program since 1973, but most of the pros working on school lunches feel that that's simply not enough.

In a statement after the vote, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded the committee, and called the bill "a positive step," but he also noted the need for "a more robust bill" in terms of funding.

Lincoln said she will look for additional dollars but believes the legislation is realistic in a tight economy. She noted the bill requires "tough choices" but is "fiscally responsible."

"I am committed to working to identify additional resources for this legislation," Lincoln said. "After reporting this bill I look forward to working with my colleague Senator Baucus and the leadership in the Senate to identify additional funding."

Perhaps the most "historic" part of the new legislation is that it gives the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to establish national school food standards consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for all foods sold in schools--including those in vending machines.

The downside to allowing USDA to set nutrition standards is the inherent conflict of interest that this fundamentally implies. USDA's "other" broad mandate is ensuring that farmers and food producers make a living by selling their food, and that's a competing interest. Although Health and Human Services co-creates the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it has long made no sense that HHS isn't fully in charge of nutrition standards. HHS and USDA are currently reviewing the 2005 Guidelines, and will release an updated version for 2010. Possibly in 2011....

*Click the link above to read full details of the bill.