By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; A04
The Democrat-led House voted Thursday to send President Obama a bill that would enable more poor children to receive free meals at school, raise the nutritional quality of cafeteria fare and reduce the junk food and sugary beverages sold in school vending machines.
The bill, which cleared the Senate in the summer, won House approval on a 264 to 157 vote. Seventeen Republicans broke party ranks to join Democrats in favor of the bill. Four Democrats were opposed.
The bill, a priority for the president and first lady Michelle Obama, would boost spending on child nutrition $4.5 billion over 10 years and raise federal reimbursements for school lunches more than the inflation rate for the first time since 1973. It also would require for the first time that free drinking water be available where meals are served.
The bill accelerates the budding healthful-food movement in public education - think whole wheat pizza with low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce - but leaves unanswered key questions about whether schools can afford to give tens of millions of students better meals.
Democrats took steps to offset the bill's costs, including a $2.2 billion cut to food stamp benefits for needy families. Those maneuvers, reflecting political pressures to avoid adding to the budget deficit, caused many Democrats to wince even as they voted for the bill because it would effectively shift funds from one anti-hunger program to another.
House Republicans opposed the bill as a needless expansion of government by the lame-duck Congress weeks after voters punished Democrats at the polls. National groups representing school administrators and boards also were opposed, calling the bill an unfunded mandate that would strain strapped school budgets.
But the Senate approved the bill through unanimous consent in August. It had strong backing from an array of groups seeking to improve child nutrition and has become part of the first lady's campaign against childhood obesity and hunger.
For House Democrats, approval of the bill marked a show of force a month before they cede the gavel to a new Republican majority.
"In a country as great as ours, no child should go hungry," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said Wednesday. But he added that many do. "We cannot afford to let that continue."
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the incoming committee chairman, said Democrats were flouting the will of the voters. " 'Stop growing government,' people are telling us," Kline said. " 'Stop spending money we do not have.' It's a simple request and a sensible one. Yet it continues to be ignored."
On Wednesday, Republicans proposed to amend the bill, including a requirement for background checks for certain child-care providers, and thereby force another vote in the Senate that would jeopardize the bill's chances of becoming law.
To neutralize that threat, Democratic leaders staged a vote on - and passed - a separate measure that mirrored elements of the Republican proposal. Then they muscled the nutrition bill, unamended, through its final vote.
The nutrition bill, steered through the Senate by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), seeks to expand access to subsidized meals for needy children and ensure that those meals have more whole grains, lean proteins and fruits and vegetables. The national school lunch program serves 31 million children, with more than 62 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
Key provisions of the legislation would:
lUse Medicaid data in some states to enroll children automatically for free meals. That would add about 115,000 new students each year to the program. Experts say needy families often fail to fill out paperwork required to show their eligibility. This provision would address that problem.
lExpand an after-school supper program for the needy - now offered in the District, Maryland and 12 other states - to all states. Doing so would provide an additional 21 million meals annually.
lAuthorize the establishment of nutrition standards for all food and beverages sold on school grounds throughout the school day. Currently, the government's regulatory scope is limited to cafeterias during hours when meals are served. This provision, advocates say, would force out sugary beverages and snacks and clear the way for more healthful food and drinks to be offered through a la carte sales at snack bars and vending machines.
lRaise the federal reimbursement by 6 cents per lunch for school districts that comply with new meals standards to be issued by the Agriculture Department. The reimbursement rate is now $2.72 for each free lunch, which most school administrators say is insufficient to cover costs. The 6 cent increase, like the base rate, would be indexed to inflation.
The American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association and the Council of the Great City Schools opposed the bill, saying it would impose a host of requirements without providing schools money to pay for them.
Jeff Simering of the Council of the Great City Schools said the bill's advocates won't suffer the fiscal headaches of implementing it. "They don't have to balance a budget," he said. "They can take positions on issues that a lot of us would like to support."
Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association described the bill as "our best chance" for getting more money for school meals. "Whether a child is in the cafeteria ordering a school meal or in front of a vending machine or in an a la carte line," she said, "they'll be receiving a consistent message about healthy food choices."