As legislative centerpiece of First Lady's childhood obesity campaign stalls, Sec. Vilsack lambasts House for failing to act on behalf of 31 million children
It's been a weird ping-pong match in the US House of Representatives lately, as lawmakers have scrambled to complete business and evacuate Washington to go home to campaign for the mid-term elections, hesitant to take up anything that might be considered controversial. It's included much debate over what legislation to vote on--and even when to leave town--but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has now officially confirmed that pending child nutrition legislation will not be brought to a vote before Members leave for the Autumn recess, sources tell Ob Fo. The fate of the vote has been up in the air for days.
First Lady Michelle Obama has made the historic legislation, which impacts about 31 million school children, a centerpiece of her Let's Move! campaign. Since June, in public remarks in Washington and while on the road for Let's Move!, she has repeatedly urged lawmakers to go for it, so President Obama could sign the bill into law before the end of September. (Above: Mrs. Obama in New York last week, where she brought her childhood obesity campaign to an international audience with a luncheon for UN spouses)
"Now, this is a bipartisan effort supported by folks on both sides of the aisle, and it’s already passed the Senate," Mrs. Obama said when addressing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute on September 14th. "And I hope that the House of Representatives will act on this legislation by the end of this month so that we can get this bill signed into law."
In August, the First Lady also published an Op Ed in the Washington Post, "A Food Bill We Need," on the eve of the Senate taking up its own version of the legislation. The Senate passed it by unanimous consent.
As she launched Phase II of the Let's Move! campaign during a visit to an elementary school in Slidell, Louisiana, on September 8, Mrs. Obama recited the goals of Let's Move!, and made it clear that improving the academic performance of America's children is explicitly tied to improved school nutrition programs. She emphasized that lawmakers are responsible for this.
“It’s important to be clear,” Mrs. Obama said, “that we can’t do any of this unless we pass the Child Nutrition legislation that’s before Congress right now.”
But clearly, the ideal get-it-done-now scenario has fallen like a soufflé, despite White House aides revealing to media this week that Mrs. Obama had been making personal calls to Dems, urging them to action, and that the President's outgoing Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, had been confabbing with House Members, too.
Earlier today, when the East Wing was queried about what "Plan B" for the First Lady's ongoing advocacy for the legislation would be if the House failed to get to a vote before the recess, aides declined to immediately comment. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack did comment on the House's action (or lack thereof), and cited leadership problems as one reason the bill has had trouble getting to the floor (see below for the Secretary's full analysis).
The Senate's passage 0f the $4.5 billion version of the legislation reportedly involved presidential wooing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)...which included an actual stroll through Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden (White House photographer Pete Souza managed to capture the moment on film). Reid enjoyed a homestate visit from Mrs. Obama, too; in June, he helped the First Lady launch Let's Move Outside in the Red Rock Conservation Area in Nevada. It was a nice dovetailing of childhood obesity and re-election campaigning.
First Lady vs. Food Stamps
The historic legislation first ran into trouble over the summer, when more than 100 Dems sent Speaker Pelosi a letter, protesting how the bill would be funded. About $2.2 billion that'd been slated for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps) was being eyed for the child nutrition funding. Some Republicans opposed the legislation, too, citing it as too expensive in general. Most recently, hunger advocates--some funded by powerful snack food lobbies--managed to get big national headlines as the debate was framed solely as Food Stamps vs. the First Lady. And because SNAP funding was used this summer to pay for legislation that sent money to cash-poor states to avoid teacher layoffs, Dems were reluctant to raid the coffers again. Especially in light of recent Census figures that showed a jump in the poverty rate, and unemployment still at 9.6 percent.
The House legislation could be taken up in the lame duck session after the mid-term elections, which begins November 15--but even that isn't certain. The bill was a transformative moment in child nutrition history: For the first time in three decades, the non-inflationary reimbursement rate for school lunches was increased, and there were all kinds of components that helped improve school-based nutrition programs, as well as other federal feeding initiatives.
Last January, when Mrs. Obama announced that combating childhood obesity would be her signature initiative, the legacy she hoped to leave behind when her White House days were over, aides suggested that the First Lady would do "whatever it took" to pass improved child nutrition legislation, and did not "rule out" Mrs. Obama testifying before Congress. Mrs. Obama did not testify before Congress, however.
The Obama admin push for the legislation
The First Lady has not been alone in campaigning for the legislation. Sec. Vilsack, of course, has worked exhaustively to promote it for months. Most recently, Senior Policy Adviser Valerie Jarrett, the First Lady's Chief of Staff Susan Sher, and Domestic Policy Council chair Melody Barnes appeared on Morning Joe to chat it up. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has devoted plenty of time to discussing the connection between healthy food and educational achievement. And almost every other Cabinet Secretary has managed to work it into a speech, because Let's Move! has components located in twelve federal agencies. Of course, Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass has devoted hundreds of hours to discussing the legislation; he even appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef: DC, during a special school lunch episode.
White House celeb guest chefs Rachael Ray and Tom Colicchio (Top Chef's host) helped call attention to the legislation, too. In June, Ray appeared with Rep. George Miller (D-CA), author of the House version of the legislation, when he unveiled it on Capitol Hill. Colicchio, a month later, testified in support of it. Other celeb chefs who are Friends of the White House have also lobbied hard for child nutrition legislation, calling all kinds of much-needed attention to it in media.
The current child nutrition legislation, which is on a one-year extension from last year that "expires" on Thursday, will now continue on an interim basis.
Agriculture Secretary still hopeful Wednesday AM
In a Q & A at the White House on Wednesday morning after the Healthy Apps event, Sec. Vilsack was still holding out a sliver of hope that the House might vote on the legislation before leaving for an early recess. (At left, Sec. Vilsack, mid analysis of House issues)
"It's very disappointing to me that we can't figure out a way to help out 31 million children," Sec. Vilsack told Ob Fo and two other reporters, and said he hoped the House would move before the end of the day.
Without naming names, Sec. Vilsack decried a general lack of leadership in the House as the reason for the failure to move on the legislation.
"There ought to be a way to find our way past any difficulties if this [legislation] is a priority," Sec. Vilsack said. "These kids have no voice. They don't have a powerful lobby, they don't vote, they don't make campaign contributions. But they're the future of this country, and with the issues that are facing this country of obesity and hunger, we ought to figure out a way to get this done."
Funding shouldn't be the issue
Sec. Vilsack insisted that how the legislation is funded shouldn't matter when considering actually passing the legislation.
"The Senate passed a bill," Sec. Vilsack said. "We can certainly work with the House concerning any concerns they may have with the levels of funding. There are other opportunities to add to that funding if that becomes an issue."
The Secretary declined to specify exactly what new funding sources would be used, saying only that he had told Rep. Miller that "we would work within our powers and capacities to see if we could find additional resources to find out what the appropriated amount would be."
"We're happy to work with whoever. But the reality is that it requires leadership and dedication to America's children to get this done," Sec. Vilsack said.
Still, he said even if the House didn't vote on the bill before the recess, he refused to believe the legislation is "dead."
"We're not going to acknowledge that. Obviously we're going to encourage them [Members] to think over the course of the recess, and the election, and come back dedicated to getting their job done," Sec. Vilsack said.
What the legislation does: A brief recap
The bill 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.
*Photos by Obama Foodorama