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Tell Congress: Pass the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

By David DeGennaro, EWG Legislative Analyst

With the aftershocks from this month's midterm election still reverberating around the nation, the "lame-duck" Congress returning to Washington for one last week's work is largely ready to punt most major issues over to next year. But it still has the opportunity to finish a very important task this week by passing the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act.

This is a historic opportunity for kids - let's seize it This bill represents an historic opportunity to improve the health of children across the country. The legislation is a renewal of the Child Nutrition Act, which Congress takes up every few years. This year's version has been beefed up in response to the dual national scourges of rising hunger and epidemic childhood obesity. While seemingly contradictory, both problems are rooted in the lack of access to a steady supply of affordable, healthy food.

The bill would go a long way toward relieving some of the nutrition deficits encountered by many children in many ways. It would, among other things:

  • expand the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program to reach many more low-income students;
  • increase the number of school breakfasts, after-school meals and summer lunches so that kids have the nutrition they need to succeed all day and throughout the year;
  • improve nutrition for kids of all economic backgrounds by updating school lunch nutrition standards and providing additional training for lunchroom workers;
  • provide additional funding for farm-to-cafeteria programs that connect kids to healthy local produce; and
  • make the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) feeding program healthier and easier to use.

There is, of course, a cost All of this will cost something, of course -- $4.5 billion over the next ten years. This is less than half of the $10 billion requested by First Lady Michelle Obama and the President, but it would be a good start on the massive hunger and obesity challenges we face.

But the legislation has not had a smooth path so far, mostly because of the increased cost. Originally, the Senate Agriculture Committee proposed cutting farm conservation funding to supply much of the additional nutrition act money, which EWG and others argued was the wrong way to go. Clean air and water should not be traded away in the quest for healthy meals for kids; simply reducing wasteful farm subsidies would provide plenty of money to fund Obama's full request.

The full Senate, instead, settled on an equally distasteful method of paying the tab, deciding to phase out increases to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp program) that were included in last year's economic stimulus package. Although we feel it is completely counterproductive to give kids healthier meals at school only to make it harder for them to get adequate food at home, it seems this is a compromise we may be forced to accept.

Given the increasing focus on the federal budget deficit, particularly among the Republican lawmakers who will take control of the House of Representatives in January, it is highly unlikely that funding increases for nutrition will stand any chance of passage in the next Congress. Our kids need these improvements now and cannot wait for a more favorable political climate to return, possibly years down the line. President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack have pledged to use whatever means they can to prevent or limit any cuts in SNAP, and the current Congressional leadership has promised to try to unwind these cuts when they begin to be implemented in the years to come.

Tell Congress: Now is the time! In order for this bill to make it to the President's desk, the House needs to pass it this week. Since it is likely to be a close vote, Representatives need to hear from their constituents that the bill is vital to them, and that the House must get it done before its time is up. They also need to reject any attempts to weaken or block the bill, such as through a motion to recommit, which would in effect kill it for this year.

Please write or call your House member today and tell them the health of our children is too important for this lame duck to ignore.

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