Nutrition programs clear first hurdle

by Jay Sjerven
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The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on March 24 unanimously passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a $4.5 billion, a 10-year reauthorization of the nation’s child nutrition programs. The bill will be sent to the full Senate for its approval.

“For far too many children, the only stable source of food they can count on is what they get at school,” said Senator Blanche L. Lincoln, chairman of the agriculture committee, after the vote. “This legislation invests in new initiatives to enroll more children in the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs, provides options for high-poverty schools to offer universal free meal services to children and, for the first time in nearly 40 years, increases the reimbursement rate for the National School Lunch Program.”
 
Senator Lincoln said the measure reflects three guiding principles: ensuring all children who are eligible for nutrition programs participate in them, improving the nutritional quality of foods provided to children in order to promote health and reduce obesity, and streamlining administration and improving the integrity of child nutrition programs.

Ms. Lincoln said the bill draws on several initiatives designed to improve the nutritional quality of the foods provided to children in the school lunch and breakfast programs.

“Most notably, the bill includes a provision that represents an historic agreement between major public health groups, food and beverage companies as well as parents and community leaders, to create national school nutrition standards,” Ms. Lincoln said.

That agreement, announced March 18, supported the bill’s authorizing the secretary of agriculture to establish sciencebased national nutrition standards consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for all foods sold in schools.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the committee voiced strong support for the legislation during the mark-up. The only significant disagreement was over how the $4.5 billion reauthorization should be funded given the pay-as-you-go rules requiring proposals for new expenditures to be offset by spending reductions in other programs. The bill as offered by Ms. Lincoln proposed a reduction in the funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as the principal offset. Ranking member Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, asserting EQIP was extremely popular among producers, offered an amendment that instead would have reduced funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program. The amendment was rejected by a vote of 11 to 10.
The reauthorization bill would allocate $1.2 billion to ensure full participation of all eligible children in the federal nutrition programs.

The bill would expand afterschool nutrition programs for at-risk children. Currently, schools are reimbursed only for providing an after-school snack to at-risk children; the reauthorization bill would provide communities the ability to be reimbursed for after-school meals. Schools in high-poverty areas would be allowed to offer free meals to all students without collecting paper applications, which the committee said would expand access while reducing administrative burdens on schools.

Children whose families receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits currently are directly certified for free school meals. The bill would expand the direct certification process to include Medicaid recipients in select districts of the United States. Foster children would be added to the list of those who are automatically eligible for free meals.

The reauthorization bill also would provide $3.2 billion for promoting health and reducing child obesity. The bill would authorize a 6c-per-meal, performance-based increase in the federal government reimbursement rate to help schools meet new national meal nutrition standards to be established by the secretary of agriculture. The bill also would provide funding to promote nutrition and wellness in child care settings, connect more children with healthful local produce through farm-to-school programs, strengthen local wellness policies, support breastfeeding in the Women, Infant and Children program and improve school food financing.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack commended Senators Lincoln and Chambliss for their efforts to secure reauthorization of the child nutrition programs.

“Today’s Senate action shows that there is broad, bipartisan support for reforming our school meals programs to improve meal quality and reduce barriers to participation,” Mr. Vilsack said.

Scott Faber, vice-president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, “The G.M.A. strongly supports efforts to feed many more children through school lunch and breakfast programs and to increase the number of healthy choices in the cafeteria. We share Senator Lincoln’s priorities for a stronger child nutrition act, including increased access to the school meals programs, science-based standards for foods sold in schools, more healthy foods available in the cafeteria, and more education about healthy diets.

“In particular, we believe that Congress should give the U.S.D.A. clear authority to set science-based standards for foods sold in schools during the school day,” Mr. Faber said. “The school environment is a special environment, and the U.S.D.A. should be given the power to establish nutrition standards for competitive foods. We believe that the school cafeteria line can be on the front lines of feeding children while ending childhood obesity within a generation. We look forward to working with Congress on these provisions.”
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