The Senate Nutrition Committee faces extinction in less than three months, having fallen victim to the Senate's attempt to reorganize itself earlier this year.
But a two-year reprieve may be in the offing if a resolution which has 20 co-sponsors is passed before the Senate recesses later this month.
Supporters are working behind the scenes to move the bill out of the Rules Committee, where it could run into some stiff opposition, onto the floor of the Senate. While two of the bill's original sponsors, Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Dick Clark (D-Iowa) are members of the committee, there may be reluctance on the part of the Rules Committee to tinker with the reorganization plan.
The Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, as it is more formally known, came into existence in 1969 in order to investigate widespread reports of hunger and malnutrition in the United States. The committee's extensive field work and hearings documented the scope of these problems, particularly among children in the South. Because of this work the committee became, according to its staff director, Alan Stone, "an inhouse focus for the disenfranchised."
Its studies also gave birth to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program which supplements the diets of poor, pregnant women and children up to the age of 5. It also has been instrumental in getting additional funding for the school lunch program. The committee has been instrumental in implementing provisions in the Farm Bill signed by President Carter that eliminate the purchase price requirement for food stamps, and double the money spent on human nutrition research.
In addition, the committee has been a force in amending the Child Nutrition Act to fund nutrition education in schools, ban junk or competitive foods in vending machines on school grounds and the increase money that will be spent on the school breakfast program.
An extremely controversial report entitled "Dietary Goals for The United States" was the result of the Nutrition Committee's investigation into the relationship between diet and disease.
Three of the co-sponsors of the bill to extend the committee's life had voted orginally to reorganize the committee out of existence. In the interests of streamlining the Senate's operations they agreed that its functions should be transferred to the Agriculture Committee.
Now these senators - Hatfield Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have had a change of heart. They feel, according to Hanfield, that a nutrition subcommittee under Agriculture will "not be given the kind of undergirding it needs in order to sustain the momentum it had when it was a select committee. I only supported the amalgamation, initially," he said, "because I thought we would have had adequate staffing." As a subcommittee there would be only three staff members instead of the present 16.
Sen. Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) a conservative who introduced the current legislation along with five other senators, sits on both the Agriculture and Nutrition committees. He was somewhat more critical in his assessment of the former's devotion to nutrition: "In all candor I am disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Agriculture Committee to carry on this work. Frankly I had hoped it would welcome a broadening of its activities to get more into areas that affect nutrition and consumers.
"What has happened is that the Agriculture Committee has done nothing."
This committee, Stone said, "provides Congress the only real alternative to continued crisis orientation in health care. We're talking about making the whole food supply healthier and giving people knowledge about what's healthy to eat. This will help to cut down health costs.
"In the beginning we had bipartisan support to feed the hungry. Now we have bipartisan support to explore diet and disease."
While the Select Committee's chairman, George McGovern (D-S.D.) is actively seeking support for extension of the committee's life, neither he nor the ranking Republican members of the committee, Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and Robert Dole (R-Kan.) are sponsors of the bill. They have said they feel it would be inappropriate for them to do so because they stand to lose the most in terms of power and staff if the Nutrition Committee dies.