Congress Approves Child Nutrition Bill

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a child nutrition bill that expands the school lunch program and sets new standards to improve the quality of school meals with more fruits and vegetables.
Michelle Obama lobbied for the bill as a way to combat both obesity and hunger. About half the $4.5 billion cost of the bill over 10 years is to be paid for by a cut in food stamp benefits starting in several years.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 264 to 157. It was approved in the Senate in August by unanimous consent. It now goes to President Obama, who intends to sign it.
In September, some liberal House Democrats and advocates for the poor railed against the bill, saying it was wrong to pay for the expansion of child nutrition programs by cutting money for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
But the Democrats put aside their disagreements on Thursday, after concluding that it was better to take what they could get than to gamble on their chances of passing a modified bill in the next Congress. Republicans will control the House after Jan. 1, and the agenda is likely to be dominated by efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Mr. Obama tamped down concerns by telling Democrats he would work with them to find other ways to pay for the bill before the cuts in food stamps take effect.
“The president will do everything he can do to restore these unconscionable cuts,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Democrats and a few Republicans praised Mrs. Obama. “She has been an incredible champion for our children, particularly in the areas of nutrition and obesity,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Mr. McGovern, who is co-chairman of the House Hunger Caucus, said: “Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin. Highly processed empty-calorie foods are less expensive than fresh, nutritious foods.”
School meal programs have a major impact on the nation’s health, and supporters of the bill said it could reduce the prevalence of obesity among children. The school lunch program feeds more than 31 million children a day.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said, “The bill sets national nutrition standards that will finally get all of the junk food infiltrating our classrooms and our cafeterias out the door.”
Republicans complained that the bill would increase federal spending. Moreover, said Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, “it is paid for with funds that are borrowed by the federal government.”
Representative Paul Broun, Republican of Georgia and a physician, said: “This bill is not about child nutrition. It’s not about healthy kids. It’s about an expansion of the federal government, more and more control from Washington, borrowing more money and putting our children in greater debt. The federal government has no business setting nutritional standards and telling families what they should and should not eat.”
The bill gives the secretary of agriculture authority to establish nutrition standards for foods sold in schools during the school day, including items in vending machines. The standards would require schools to serve more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
In addition, for the first time in more than three decades, the bill would increase federal reimbursement for school lunches beyond adjustments for inflation — to help cover the cost of higher-quality meals. It would also allow more than 100,000 children on Medicaid to qualify automatically for free school meals, without filing paper applications.
One of the most contentious provisions of the bill regulates prices charged for lunches served to children with family incomes that exceed the poverty level by more than 85 percent, a threshold that works out to $40,793 for a family of four.
“This provision would require some schools to raise their lunch prices,” the Congressional Budget Office said.
Representative John Kline, Republican of Minnesota, said that the price provision was tantamount to a tax increase on middle-class families. The National Governors Association and local school officials objected to it as a new federal mandate.
But Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research and advocacy group, said: “The price of paid lunches needs to go up. Schools are not charging enough to cover the cost. As a result, money intended to provide healthy food to low-income kids is being diverted to subsidize food for higher-income children.”
School districts that comply with the new standards can receive an additional federal payment of 6 cents for each lunch served. The National School Boards Association, representing local board members, said “the actual increased cost of compliance” was at least twice that amount.
The bill was written mainly by Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who lost her bid for re-election.
Passage of the bill followed years of studies by the National Academy of Sciences and negotiations by advocates for children and the food industry. It was supported by health, education and religious groups, labor unions and the food, beverage, dairy and supermarket industries.
The bill rounds out the tenure of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. When she took the gavel in January 2007, she was surrounded by the children of House members, and she called the House to order in the name of “all America’s children.” On Thursday, though she left the supervision of preliminary votes in the House to others, Ms. Pelosi took back the gavel to personally declare the bill passed.
Ms. Pelosi said the child nutrition bill, besides being “important for moral reasons,” would increase the nation’s economic competitiveness and military readiness. Millions of young adults are unable to serve in the armed forces because they are overweight, she said.

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