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Senate panel OKs school-lunch measure

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grease-laden pizzas and high-calorie desserts may be less frequent lunchtime offerings for schoolchildren under a wide-ranging nutrition bill approved by a Senate panel Wednesday.

The legislation approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee would allow the Agriculture Department to create uniform standards for all foods in schools, including vending-machine items, to give students healthier meal options. The legislation allocates an additional $4.5 billion over 10 years for nutrition programs.

It would also expand the number of low-income children eligible for subsidized free or reduced-cost meals, a step Democrats say would help toward President Obama's stated goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015.

The bill, which public health advocates have been pushing for almost a decade, has won unexpected support from many of the nation's largest food and beverage companies, including Mars Inc. and PepsiCo. The two sides came together on the issue as a heightened interest in nutrition has made it difficult for anyone - especially the companies themselves - to push junk foods in schools.

Still, congressional action is only the first step. Many of the most difficult decisions - including what kinds of foods will be sold and how much - will be left up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, withdrew an amendment to ban trans fats from schools, for example, and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, said Congress should let the executive branch tackle that issue.

"We provide the broad outline, and the department is going to fill in those details," she said. "Once we open the door to trying to dictate trans fats, we are opening the door to try and micromanage other things."

The bill would provide a 6-cent increase in reimbursements to schools for subsidized free and low-cost lunches, the first increase in the reimbursement rate for the school-lunch program since 1973, according to Mrs. Lincoln.

Critics have said the bill does not provide enough money to schools to provide healthy lunches to every child that needs one. Mrs. Gillibrand said the legislation should provide $4 billion a year instead of over 10 years.

"We have a long way to go from 6 cents to 70 cents we need," Mrs. Gillibrand said of the increase.

Mrs. Lincoln said she will look for additional dollars but thinks the legislation is realistic in a tight fiscal environment.

"This bill is a very good start," she said.

The legislation would also provide money for "farm-to-school" programs, encouraging schools to buy foods from local farms and grow food gardens on campus. It would be partly paid for by reducing subsidies paid to farmers for using environmentally friendly practices.

The issue has been partly pushed along by first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity. The administration proposed more than twice as much for the legislation, however, asking Congress for $10 billion over 10 years for nutrition programs.

The House has not yet acted on the request.