Child Nutrition Bill Advances in Senate Panel, Despite Offset Concerns

Ballard's picture

By Geof Koss, CQ Staff

A Senate panel on Wednesday backed nutrition legislation that would provide first- time authority for the federal government to regulate all food sold at schools nationwide, despite some concerns over how to pay for the bill.

The new authority is contained in a draft reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs that was approved by voice vote in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

The government already has some authority to regulate school lunches through the National School Lunch Program. But the bill would go further by allowing the Agriculture Department to regulate all food sold by schools, including from vending machines and for fundraisers. The bill does not spell out what the guidelines should be.

The draft, unveiled last week by Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., would reauthorize many federal nutrition programs and allocate an additional $4.5 billion over 10 years for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, the Women, Infants and Children program, and other nutrition assistance efforts. The amount equals roughly half the $10 billion increase over 10 years that President Obama sought in his fiscal 2011 budget request.

Senators from both parties applauded the increase proposed in Lincoln’s bill, but repeatedly raised concerns over the decision to pay for the boost in part by cutting $2.2 billion over 10 years from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a popular federal program that pays farmers to adopt conservation practices.

Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns — who served as Agriculture secretary during the George W. Bush administration — noted there were recently four times as many applications to join EQIP in his state as there were available slots. “The popularity of this program outpaces the resources,” he said.

Lincoln called EQIP “a critically important program,” and said she would work with other senators to identify alternate offsets. A coalition of environmental groups sent a letter to the committee Tuesday urging senators to find another way to pay for nutrition increases. The coalition noted that the proposed reduction would reduce the baseline amount for conservation funds ahead of the next farm bill. An agriculture program’s baseline number is used in formulating how much it might get in the farm bill.

However, the committee rejected an amendment by Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who serves as the panel’s ranking member, that would have paid for the nutrition increase by instead cutting funds from the Conservation Stewardship Program, a separate USDA conservation program that Chambliss said has far less applicants than EQIP.

“I think it’s more appropriate that we use a program that is not as much in demand than to use a program that is in demand,” he said.
But Iowa Democrat and former Agriculture chairman Tom Harkin — a strong supporter of the Conservation Stewardship Program — warned that Chambliss’s amendment would undo the carefully negotiated deals that produced the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-234). “This is not the appropriate time and place to do that,” he said.

The Chambliss amendment was defeated on a 10-11 vote, with Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson joining all committee Republicans in support. Chambliss later told reporters he would press the issue on the Senate floor.

Chambliss said he supported improving school nutrition, but noted progress in school districts through voluntary guidelines.
The committee adopted a manager’s package of amendments by voice vote, as well as:
• a proposal by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would ensure funds in the bill are spent to research child hunger, obesity and type 2 diabetes on Indian reservations;
• an amendment by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, that would establish an organic food school pilot program;
• another Brown amendment that would provide competitive grants to state agencies for summer food service programs;
• a plan by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., that would require a study of best practices of states participating in a federal after-school supper program.

Source: CQ Today Online News
Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill.
© 2010 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.