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Child nutrition bill, priority for first lady, stalls

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 2:38 PM

A child nutrition bill that was a centerpiece of Michelle Obama's healthful eating campaign stalled in the House on Wednesday after anti-hunger groups and more than 100 Democrats protested the use of food stamp dollars to pay for it.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate this summer, would have mandated strict nutrition standards for all food sold in schools and boosted spending on school meals and other nutrition programs by $4.5 billion over 10 years -- the first increase since 1973. The legislation must be reauthorized every five years. In 2009, Congress passed a one-year extension.

Anti-hunger advocates denounced the bill, which was to be funded in part by $2 billion in cuts to the federal food stamp program, or SNAP. The reduction, according to the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, would have cut $59 from a typical family of four's monthly food budget. Calling such cuts egregious, 106 Democrats wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in protest.

"That additional amount of food stamps is absolutely fundamental to children and families' well-being," said Jim Weil, FRAC's president. "The people who belittle that are ignoring at their peril what is happening to the 41 million poorest people in the country."

Casting the funding as cuts to the SNAP program is a mischaracterization, however, public health advocates say. The $2 billion would have come from a temporary increase to SNAP that was passed in 2009 to cover a predicted inflation of food prices that never materialized.

All 106 signatories voted for a bill, passed in August, that took $12 billion from the temporary SNAP increase to pay for teachers' jobs.

The first lady had pushed hard for the bill. In speeches across the country, Obama called the legislation a crucial piece of her "Let's Move" initiative and urged Congress to take action. In August, days before the Senate passed the measure, Obama published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling the bill "groundbreaking legislation that will bring fundamental change to schools and improve the food options available to our children." In the weeks leading up to the Sept. 30 deadline, when the legislation expires, the first lady worked closely with the president's office of legislative affairs and reached out to Pelosi and other congressional leaders.

But supporters of the bill say it was simply too controversial in the lead-up to the mid-term elections. Polls show that voters are keen to see cuts in spending and more limited government and some feared that the bill, which would increase access to school meals for low-income children and limit junk foods in vending machines and buffet lines, would be seen as another expansion. Others worried that any cut to food stamp funding would be untenable with voters during difficult economic times.

"Members of Congress have been asked to cast a lot of hard votes: financial regulatory reform, health care, the stimulus. Once this became controversial, it was just one more hard vote that for many wasn't important enough to take a stand on," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition for Washington-based public health watchdog the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Programs will continue to be funded by a stop-gap bill Congress passed before adjourning. Public health advocates and anti-hunger groups say they will push for legislators to pass a nutrition bill during the lame-duck session.

"School nutrition professionals across this country are working miracles every day, stretching limited funds to assemble nutritious meals that fuel our children's school days," said Nancy Rice, the president of the School Nutrition Association. "We can no longer afford to voice our concerns about rising rates of childhood obesity and the need to promote healthier lifestyles at school without investing in the programs that reach children in their school cafeterias each day."

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