Policy-ish

Child Nutrition Food Fight Bumps Up Against Political Reality

lunch tray

Better school lunches may cost food stamps program some promised increases. istockphoto.com hide caption

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If Congress wants to put healthier food into school lunches, it may have to go with the bill the Senate passed last month, or risk rehashing the whole thing later and getting nothing.

That's become the political reality. Even Ag Chief Tom Vilsack knows it."What we don't want to do is compromise what we can get today for what may or may not be available in 2013," he told reporters this week on a conference call.

But it's not very popular with people who say the bill cuts food stamp benefits, as NPR's Pam Fessler points out in her story on Morning Edition Friday.

"It is wrong to take money from food stamps to finance child nutrition programs," Edward M. Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center told the New York Times.

Technically, the food stamp money "cuts" are a repeal of promised future increases, a.k.a. not yet "real money." But uncomfortably for President Obama, it pits school lunch advocates against people with no lunch.

The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, as the Senate bill is known, is also unpopular with people who think adding about 6 cents per lunch is not nearly enough to update an outmoded program — people like real food pioneer Alice Waters, who thinks the number should be more like $5 more per lunch. (It's about $3 per lunch now, with most of the cost going to labor and overhead.)

In any event, Congress will recess next week until after the elections.

The Senate bill boosts spending by $4.5 billion over 10 years. It directs USDA to develop new nutrition standards that emphasize a variety of foods, not just nutrient targets. Right now, Vitamin C-fortified gummy bears can stand in for an orange.

The House bill is more generous, but as Time magazine's Healthland Blog points out, even if the House passes it's bill, it wouldn't make it to the Senate until next year or later — at which point, whole new budget issues may surface.

In Lunch Line, a soon-to-be released documentary about the history of school lunch that premiered in Washington this week, we heard a lot of optimism about the future of the program, and the need to make changes soon, even if they're not perfect.

Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper, who would like to see more funding, says in the film: "Let's start with food. Let's start with getting real food into school lunch."

The Senate bill would be a step in that direction.

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