Child Nutrition Bills Stalled in Congress

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Michelle Obama has pleaded with the U.S. Congress (in a Washington Post opinion piece). Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has pleaded with her colleagues (in floor speeches and press conferences). Physicians, child advocates and even talk show host/food guru Rachel Ray have joined the campaign for the passage of a new Child Nutrition bill. 

Yet, four days before Congress is set to adjourn for its annual August recess – which runs through Sept 12 – the bill hasn’t been scheduled for floor debate, and the current bill expires on Sept. 30.

The bill – the Senate version is called The Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act – would set new nutrition standards for what is served the nation’s school children both in the lunch line and from vending machines, raise the rate of reimbursement for school lunches for the first time ini three decades and continue the Women, Infants and Children program that promotes infant and maternal nutrition.

The school breakfast program and the free or reduced lunch program for students are covered under separate, permanent authorizations.  This bill only affects the nutrition offered by those programs.

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its bi-partisan $4.5 billion bill in March, which officials said is fully funded through reductions in other Agriculture programs.  The House’s Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, was voted out of committee in June, has a price tag of $8 billion, with no provisions on how to pay for it. President Barack Obama had sought $10 billion for child nutrition.

Earlier today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) complained about Republicans’ “obstructionist” tactics on several important bills, including the child nutrition bill, which he said won’t be considered until after the recess. Supporters fear that the bill will be squeezed off the calendar then by appropriations and other bill that also need to be passed by the end of the current fiscal year.

Even if the current bill were extended another year – it’s now operating on a one-year extension – that wouldn’t address the nutrition and obesity issues on which the new bills focus.

A major portion of the proposed bills is directed at America’s obesity program, particularly obesity in children.  That’s the cause championed by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program.

In her Post opinion piece entitled “A Bill We Need,” Obama called for passage “as soon as possible.”

“We owe it to the children who aren't reaching their potential because they're not getting the nutrition they need during the day,” Obama wrote. “We owe it to the parents who are working to keep their families healthy and looking for a little support along the way. We owe it to the schools that are trying to make progress but don't have the resources they need. And we owe it to our country -- because our prosperity depends on the health and vitality of the next generation.”

Lincoln has repeatedly cajoled her colleagues about calling the bill for a vote, and last week held a news conference with several fellow senators and child nutrition advocates to urge a floor vote.

“This bill is bipartisan, completely paid for and provides common-sense solutions to addressing childhood hunger and obesity,” Lincoln said at the July 29 event.

Joining her were Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Amy Klobucher (D-Minn.)