Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rep. Miller & Rachael Ray Unveil $8 Billion Child Nutrition Legislation

"Let's Move! is everybody's common mantra now," Ray says, as Rep. Miller notes "It's time to get serious..."
Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, announced the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act 2010” this morning at a press conference on the Hill. He was joined by celeb chef and talk show host Rachael Ray, as well as the bipartisan group of lawmakers who are co-sponsoring the bill. The new legislation is the House version of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, and beyond impacting the estimated 31 million kids who benefit from federal feeding programs, it also has school food standards and guidelines that effect all of America's kids.

"It's time to get serious about this issue. Our children cannot afford to wait,” Rep. Miller said as he announced the new legislation. "No child should go hungry and all children should have access to the high quality food they need to be healthy and to succeed in school."

The new legislation proposes $8 billion in additional funding over 10 years for child nutrition programs, including school breakfast and lunch. Its proposed increase is close to the $10 billion President Obama called for in his FY 2010 budget. If passed, the law would represent the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased the federal reimbursement rate for school meals. The fact sheet for the new legislation is here.

There's just a short period of time for action on child nutrition legislation before the summer break for Congress, and the new bill offers some unprecedented initiatives. First Lady Michelle Obama called for rapid Congressional action on child nutrition on Friday when she launched Chefs Move to Schools. The legislation that currently funds child nutrition programs is set to expire on Sept. 30, and if no new legislation is passed, the current law will be extended. A fact sheet for the new legislation is here. (Above: Rep. Miller at the podium; next to him is Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Ray is on right)

"The research about nutrition, learning, and health is compelling and unambiguous, if children are hungry in the classroom they can't focus and they have difficulty learning and they fall behind their classmates," said Rep. Miller. "We have a responsibility to ensure that they have access to enough food and the right food."

The new legislation mirrors initiatives in the Let's Move! campaign, as well as those in the Senate version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, but has a different financial structure.

It dramatically improves on existing legislation by mandating that the Secretary of Agriculture set national nutrition standards for all foods served in schools according to federal Institute of Medicine guidelines, including foods sold in vending machines and in "a la carte" lines. It also requires that only low-fat milk be sold in the lunch line, and urges farm to school sourcing for more fresh produce and vegetables; streamlining access for children to federal feeding programs with the elimination of paper applications; improving nutrition education in multiple child care settings; calls for training for school food workers, and has excellent food safety elements. There are also competitive grants for school breakfast programs and year-round meal service in some states. (Above: Ray speaking at the event)

"First Lady Michelle Obama has lent her leadership and knowledge to help end childhood obesity with her Lets Move! initiative," Rep. Miller said. "This bill answers her call and moves us closer to meeting President Obama's challenge to end childhood hunger in America, which affects over 16 million children every day."

Celeb chef Ray was a little more dramatic as she spoke to the crowd, asking everyone to close their eyes and imagine what it would be like to be a hungry child.

"The difference an apple or a good school lunch makes to these kids is more than just keeping them focused in class, it literally is everything," Ray said, as she described how learning to cook can boost self esteem and kids' feelings of security. "I've been doing this [working on child nutrition] for three years now, and I really feel like now is the time, that today is the first day of the end of hunger for our kids and the first day of better nutrition."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3) addressed what she believes will be expected criticism of the new legislation.

"I suspect that there some of our colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, who will ask: how can we afford this bill at the moment? I say: How can we afford not to pass this bill?" Rep. DeLauro said. "Leaving millions malnourished now in the name of budget cutting is penny wise, but it's pound foolish, we need to get get this bill authorized and passed or we delay childrens' healthier future, a future that they deserve."

"We look forward to working with the Administration as an active partner in this process," Rep. Miller said.

"I thank the First Lady for involving our whole country," Ray added. "I really believe that Let's Move! is everybody's common mantra now."

The new legislation is co-sponsored by Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY-4), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities, Todd Platts (R-PA), ranking member on the subcommittee on healthy families and communities of the Education and Labor committee, Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Rep. DeLauro.

Lauds for the new legislation
The Senate's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was introduced by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-ARK) in March. It was unanimously approved by the bipartisan Senate Agriculture Committee, but has had no further action. Lawmakers have less than a month to work on the child nutrition legislation before recessing for summer break. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Tuesday that both food safety and child nutrition were on the work schedule for this period.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement lauding the bipartisan House effort:

"I commend Chairman Miller for his efforts to develop a strong bill to reauthorize and reform the Child Nutrition Act. The legislation introduced today takes yet another step toward the passage of a robust bill that reforms our school meals programs by reducing barriers to participation, improves program access, and enhances the quality of school meals and the health of the school environment. We simply must pass this critical legislation this year, for the future of our children."

The School Nutrition Association, which encompasses thousands of school food workers across America, also weighed in.

“School nutrition programs are improving school meals despite limited budgets, complicated regulations and federal reimbursements that don’t meet the cost of preparing school meals. We applaud efforts by both the Senate and the House to provide school nutrition programs with additional resources to build on these successes,” said School Nutrition Association President Dora Rivas, MS, RD, SNS and Executive Director of Child Nutrition Services for Dallas ISD.

Related: Ray, with chef Marcus Samuelsson, stars in a White House video shot during the special Kitchen Garden harvest and picnic for the launch of Chefs Move To Schools. A little Kitchen Garden interview with Ray is here. A video of Ray and Rep. Miller in conversation about child nutrition is here.

*With additional reporting by Helena Bottemiller of Obama Foodorama and Food Safety News. Photos by David Hartzler/House Education and Labor Committee.