Senate Agriculture Committee Reports Child Nutrition Bill: Farm to School Included; Conservation Cuts Major Point of Contention
March 24th, 2010
On Wednesday, March 24, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved the child nutrition reauthorization bill (Healthy Hunger-Free Kids’ Act of 2010) by unanimous consent. The bill increases spending on nutrition programs by $4.5 billion over the next ten years and includes several important school meal program improvements including improved access, nutritional standards, and per meal federal benefit.
As we reported earlier, the draft bill from Ag Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) also included $25 million in mandatory funding for the Farm to School program. In Lincoln’s “manager’s amendment” that was approved today, she lifted that amount up to $40 million. In addition, the manager’s amendment included the improved Farm to School program language from Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) Farm to School bill. The Leahy bill would provide $50 million, and work is ongoing to try to achieve that funding level by the time the bill goes to the Senate floor.
The Leahy bill gained three additional co-sponsors this week – Senators Franken (D-MN), Tester (D-MT) and Stabenow (D-MI). Eight members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are now official co-sponsors out of 17 total co-sponsors.
The child nutrition reauthorization bill as reported out of Committee today also includes three funding cuts to offset the additional $4.5 billion being invested in school meals and nutrition programs. In addition to cuts to SNAP Ed, as the food stamp education program is now known, and the bonus commodity program, the bill cuts $2.8 billion in farm bill mandatory spending budget authority for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) over the next ten years.
The major debate and only roll call vote of the day was over an amendment offered by Ranking Republican Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) to remove the cut from EQIP and substitute an even larger cut to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). After a debate in which nearly all Senators speaking said they regretted cutting conservation at all, the amendment then failed on a nearly strict party-line vote of 11-10. Senator Nelson (D-NE) was the sole Democrat to vote with the minority.
The Chambliss amendment would have cut CSP by $3.2 billion, replacing the $2.8 billion cut to EQIP and also funding a $100 million commodity purchase for the emergency food assistance program (TEFAP) and $275 million to pay for a reduction in the area level of poverty necessary to qualify for the summer food program from 50% to 40%.
In holding the line for her offset package and defeating the Chambliss amendment, Chairman Lincoln indicated she would work with Senators to try to increase the total funding available to improve school meals and to find different or additional offsets that could pass on the Senate floor.
Both the Chair and former Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) noted that funding for EQIP would still increase relative to current levels, even with the cutback, and both also noted that they would attempt to block the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee from taking additional cuts to EQIP beyond the cut in the bill. They also noted the Chambliss amendment unwisely reduced the farm bill baseline by an even larger amount than the Lincoln proposal. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) noted the Chambliss amendment would disproportionately impact fruit and vegetable growers.
Senator Stabenow filed two amendments to improve the farm bill conservation program technical assistance budgets for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The amendments do not require additional funding, but attempt to make the best possible use out of existing funding. The amendments did not come to a vote, but the Chair indicated she would continue to work with Senator Stabenow to try to reach an accommodation before the bill reaches the Senate floor.
An amendment by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was accepted by voice vote with no opposition to authorize an organic food pilot program that would provide competitively-awarded grants to school authorities to create pilot efforts to buy more organic foods for the school meal programs. The measure would still need to be funded by Agricultural Appropriations for the program to get off the ground.