On Thursday, August 5, the Senate passed a child nutrition program re-authorization bill by unanimous consent.
The bill provides a 6-cent per meal increase in school lunch reimbursements, expands school meal eligibility, and establishes stronger nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools. It also includes $40 million in mandatory funding for the Farm to School competitive grants program, a measure that NSAC has helped champion.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed after an intensive effort by its chief sponsor, Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and other Senators to get the bill done before the Senate adjourns for a month-long summer recess. The First Lady also weighed in with a Washington Post op ed in favor a Senate action earlier in the week.
In a major change in how the $4.5 billion bill is paid for, the version passed today removes a controversial multi-billion dollar cut to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and replaces it with a similarly controversial shortening of the time frame for the temporary increase in SNAP (food stamp) benefits included last year as part of the economic recovery bill.
Overall, the Senate bill is less generous than a $10 billion measure originally suggested by the White House and also less than the pending $8 billion House version of the legislation. However, to date, the Senate bill is the only one of the three proposals that is paid for with the required offsetting budget cuts or tax increases.
NSAC joined other organizations that support farm conservation and environmental programs in praising the Senate for dropping the earlier plan to pay for nutrition improvements with farm bill conservation money.
Some anti-hunger groups are quite naturally upset and opposed to the substitute SNAP offset. For instance, the Food Research Action Center (FRAC) put out a statement opposing the bill saying “it will increase hunger in America by cutting SNAP benefits. This bill, if enacted, will do more harm than good.”
Nutrition and public health groups on the other hand generally backed the bill and praised the Senate for passing it.
Action will now turn to the House, where the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act has been approved by the Education and Labor Committee and is awaiting House floor action. First, however, an offset package to pay for the measure must be developed.
Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chief sponsor of the House and Chair of Education and Labor, commended the Senate for its action today, calling it an important step forward.
NSAC will continue to urge the House leaders and sponsors to avoid cuts to food stamps, conservation or other farm bill funding when developing its offset package, and instead to close regressive tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and distort the economy.
Time is running short for final action. The current child nutrition provisions expire on September 30.
While the House is being called back into emergency session next week to deal with a bill to provide aid to the states for education and medicare, a bill that also uses an additional reallocation of SNAP recovery bill dollars as part of its offset package, it currently seems unlikely they would deal with the child nutrition bill at that time.
If so, they will only have about two weeks once they return from the summer recess to take action, or Congress will be forced to extend the sunset date in current law.
If a final bill passes and gets signed into law with a major increase in funding for school and related feeding programs, it will be the first federal funding increase for school meals in three decades.