Historic nutrition bill increases funding, expands nutritional standards, and tackles school food safety

House lawmakers introduced a historic child nutrition bill yesterday that would target childhood obesity, hunger, and school food safety practices. The legislation requests an additional $8 billion in funding over the next 10 years to augment existing child nutrition programs and mandates that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopt strict nutritional standards for so-called competitive foods, like those found in school vending machines.

The House version is similar to the child nutrition bill pending in the Senate, though it offers substantially more funding. The Senate version calls for $4.5 billion in additional funding over 10 years, a little under half of the Obama Administration’s request of $10 billion. Both bills significantly increase the reimbursement rates for food, something that hasn’t happened (aside from adjusting for inflation) since 1973.

rayatcongress.jpg“It’s time to get serious about this issue,” said Congressman George Miller (D-CA), sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “No child should go hungry and all children should have access to the high quality food they need to be healthy and to succeed in school.”

“Our children cannot afford to wait, said Miller, who introduced the bill yesterday with celebrity chef Rachael Ray and a handful of members of Congress at his side. “First Lady Michelle Obama has lent her leadership and knowledge to help end childhood obesity with her Let’s Move! initiative.”

“This bill answers her call and moves us closer to meeting President Obama’s challenge to end childhood hunger in America, which affects over 16 million children every day,” Miller said during the press conference. “We look forward to looking forward to working with the Administration as an active partner in this process. This bill also responds to parents and school food directors who told us about the need to implement new food safety guidelines so that schools get better information about recalled food.”

According to Rep. Miller’s office, the bill would ensure school meals are safe for all students by extending food safety requirements to all areas in which school food is stored, prepared, and served. According to Miller’s office, the legislation responds directly to a September Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found a lack of coordination in communicating food safety problems to schools.

The bill calls for improved communication to speed notification of recalled school foods consistent with GAO recommendations and ensuring all foodservice employees have access to food safety training to prevent and identify foodborne illness such as through Web-based training.

Though the bill received praise across the board–from the School Nutrition Association, nutritional and public health advocates, and the food industry–many questions remain.

It is unclear what spending offsets House lawmakers will find to pay for the bill (the Senate is seeking cuts in other agriculture programs). Also, both the House and Senate face jam packed legislative agendas for this work period and the window of opportunity for passage is somewhat limited as the extension of the Child Nutrition Act, which currently funds the nutrition programs, is set to expire September 30.

Pictured: Celebrity chef Rachael Ray, center, shows her support for the nutrition bill on Capitol Hill, joined by legislation co-sponsors Reps George Miller, Todd Platts, and Rosa DeLauro. Photo by Helena Bottemiller.