Food Safety Provisions Remain in Bill, Lawmakers Add Pilots to Increase Organic, Vegetarian Food in Schools
An historic $8 billion child nutrition bill is one step closer to passage. Yesterday, the House Education and Labor Committee approved the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, bipartisan legislation that would, for the first time in over three decades, increase the reimbursement rate for school nutrition programs, set nutritional standards for all food sold in schools, and expand access to breakfast.
The legislation also aims to make it easier for kids to gain access to federal nutrition programs and ensure those programs serve more nutritious food, all served within new school food safety guidelines. The House proposal increases overall spending on federal nutrition programs by $8 billion over the next 10 years, a similar Senate bill increases spending by $4.5 billion.

abc-apple-featured.jpgFirst Lady Michelle Obama lauded the news yesterday, “This important legislation will combat hunger and provide millions of schoolchildren with access to healthier meals, a critical step in the battle against childhood obesity. I urge both the House and Senate to take their child nutrition bills to the floor and pass them without delay.”

“The President looks forward to signing a final bill this year, so that we can make significant progress in improving the nutrition and health of children across our nation,” added Mrs. Obama. The bill is a key part of the First Lady’s nationwide campaign to combat childhood obesity within a generation. 

“This legislation gives us a real opportunity to make dramatic reforms to help prevent hunger, to improve children’s health, and increase access to healthy meals,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee and original co-sponsor of the bill. “The health and academic success of an entire generation of children is at stake.”

Though the bill cleared committee 32-13 with support on both sides of the aisle–Reps.Todd Platts (R-PA), Vern Ehlers (R-MI) and Mike Castle (R-DE) broke party ranks–there was significant partisan debate on how to pay for the bill. Unsurprisingly, Republicans continually brought up the national deficit as a critical concern, while Democrats maintained they would find offsets to pay for the spending increases before the bill is brought to the floor, as they are required to do under PAYGO rules.

During markup several amendments were adopted, including a $1 million pilot program to introduce plant-based, vegetarian options in school meal programs and a trial program to increase organic foods served in school meals.

“If we are to be successful in curbing the childhood obesity epidemic, we need to offer students the healthiest options available, such as plant-based vegetarian options that are cholesterol-free, generally low in fat and saturated fat, lower in calories, and higher in fiber,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), sponsor of the vegetarian pilot program.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who co-sponsored the organic program said, “This amendment is good for our children’s health, it’s good for schools, it’s good for farmers, and it’s good for our environment.”

On the food safety front, the legislation maintained language that 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.

Kucinich also succeeded in adding an amendment aimed at reducing pregnant women and children’s consumption of foods that have high levels of mercury. The amendment requires the Department of Agriculture (USDA), in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to issue scientific guidance that will be provided to administrators of the child nutrition programs and the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC). The goal is to help schools and WIC programs avoid fish that is high in mercury in favor of healthier fish.

The bill remains a top priority for the White House, especially for the First Lady, but it is unclear whether Congress will succeed in getting the legislation to the president’s desk before the August recess begins. The one-year extension for the current child nutrition bill expires September 30.
For more information about the bill and amendments offered during the hearing, see the House Education and Labor Website.