In a surprise move yesterday before heading out for five weeks of recess, the Senate passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with unanimous consent, which means all 100 senators agreed to pass the bill without an individual vote. The bill allots an additional $4.5 billion dollars over ten years to fund federal child nutrition programs including school lunch.
First Lady Michelle Obama supported the bill as part of her Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity, writing in an op-ed in The Washington Post last week,”This groundbreaking legislation will bring fundamental change to schools and improve the food options available to our children.”
Though providing less than the requested $10 billion suggested by Let’s Move, this marks the first major step towards the most significant increase in funding on the child nutrition programs in 30 years. In a statement yesterday, the First Lady said, “While childhood obesity cannot be solved overnight, with everyone working together, there’s no question that it can be solved. And today’s vote moves us one step closer to reaching that goal.”
According to Jane Black at The Washington Post, the bill includes money for the establishment of school gardens and for sourcing local foods. In addition, the bill “would mandate that the Department of Agriculture develop nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, not just what is served in the lunch line,” which could mean eliminating “competitive foods” like soda and candy bars in vending machines and a la carte lines. This won’t be so easy for schools to swallow, as the money from these purchases is often used to fund sports and art programs.
The pressure to pass the bill is now on the House, which is officially on August recess, but will be reconvening next week to work on a jobs bill. However, according to Black, the chamber is not expected to take up the bill until after the August recess. In order for the new funding to become law, the House will need to pass its version of the bill, which currently calls for nearly double the funding (and reconcile it with the Senate’s version), in time for President Obama to sign the bill into law before September 30th, when the original funding is set to expire.
The Senate has promised to pay for their version of the bill with monies from other programs at the USDA. On the chopping block, for example, are food stamp benefits, or SNAP. $12 billion in additional SNAP benefits were set to come online in 2013, and have been mentioned as a potential source of funding for the jobs bill, among others. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) claimed that since these funds were already being co-opted, they might as well be used to pay for child nutrition. “I think it’s appropriate if these tax dollars are going to be spent that they’re spent on healthy food for kids,” she said.
Advocates have for the most part thrown their support behind the bill, even though what it offers equals around 6 cents per school meal, which wouldn’t even cover the cost of an apple per child per day. However, the added absurdity of taking food from the mouths of hungry families to give to hungry kids has gotten some groups riled up. The Community Food Security Coalition, made up of around 300 organizations, argues that “programs should not be paid for by cutting food benefits for low-income and disadvantaged Americans, regardless of the merits of those programs. Congress should not be voting to increase hunger.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) agreed more or less with the sentiment in a statement released yesterday:
The legislation rids schools of junk food, issues proper alerts to schools when contaminations occur, guarantees all foster children access to school meals, connects farms to schools to supply them with fresh, local produce, and strengthens nutrition resources for children and young mothers. But if our children are ever going to truly succeed in the classroom and beyond, they need better access to healthy meals in the lunchroom, and this legislation falls short of that goal. Further, I’m disappointed that the bill is paid for in part with future funds from the critically important SNAP program. I will continue to fight for more common sense changes to the program and secure the investments we need to make sure every child can achieve their full potential.
Photo: a la corey