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Chronicle Washington Bureau
(12-02) 04:00 PST Washington—The biggest overhaul of the national school lunch program and other federal food programs in 30 years is expected to pass the House today, following a rare unanimous Senate vote earlier this year. It would enact a key plank of first lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign.
Championed by Bay Area Democratic Reps. George Miller of Martinez and Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma, as well as a coalition of celebrity chefs appalled by the poor quality of school lunches, the $4.5 billion, 10-year legislation would increase nutritional standards in all federal food programs and eliminate junk food and soda from school campuses nationwide, following California's lead over the past decade.
Indeed the legislation takes into the national mainstream Berkeley food guru Alice Waters' once-radical school gardening concept by including $40 million in mandatory funding for a program to encourage schools to buy food from local farms and start their own gardens.
It also provides a 6-cents-per-lunch boost to schools, along with a welter of other provisions nudging schools to improve the nutritional value of the meals they provide. The funding is just half of what President Obama initially requested, but nutrition experts said it's a significant boost to the amount the federal government pays schools now, which ranges from 26 cents to $2.72, depending on parents' income. California will receive an extra $34.5 million a year from the bill.
The school lunch and other federal food programs feed more than 31 million children a day, and half of all infants born in the United States.
Because schoolchildren consume anywhere from one-third to half of the calories they eat on campus, the school lunch program has become central to efforts to combat the childhood obesity epidemic, which leads to multiple chronic illnesses that add nearly $150 billion a year to the nation's health care bill. School lunches were initially instituted to remedy malnutrition among World War II recruits.
"It's such an important step to take for addressing the huge burden that chronic disease is taking on our country," said Leslie Mikkelsen, a dietitian and managing director of the Prevention Institute, an Oakland nonprofit pushing improved diets as a way to prevent disease. "We've got 75 percent of health care costs attributed to chronic disease, and a portion of these are preventable. One pillar of that prevention is better nutrition."
Finding the money
House Republicans made a last-ditch effort to kill the legislation on the grounds that it was too expensive, delaying a vote until today, but Democrats insisted they have the votes and will pass it. Democrats paid for the bill by scaling back a multi-year, temporary expansion of food stamp benefits enacted in the 2009 fiscal stimulus that turned out to be bigger than anticipated because food prices have risen less than expected. Even with the cutbacks used to pay for the school lunch program, higher food stamp benefits will remain in effect through 2013.
The legislation covers all federal food programs, and includes such measures as encouraging breastfeeding among poor mothers participating in the Women, Infants and Children program.
Woolsey had sponsored the effort to remove junk foods and sodas sold in vending machines and in campus stores for many years, culminating this year in an agreement by the candy and soda industries to cooperate, instead of blocking the effort as they had in 2004.
"There's been a lot of momentum on that issue," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who recalled first asking Woolsey to sponsor a junk food bill nine years ago.
Woolsey also obtained a provision to start a pilot program for schools to begin experimenting with using organic foods.
Wootan said the first lady's campaign, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the Obama administration, were critical. "Without the president and first lady, this bill wouldn't have passed," Wootan said. All federal departments have been mobilized behind Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, including even "farm-to-school tactical teams" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The department's farm commodity surplus program, intended to boost prices for farmers and often blamed for dumping chicken nuggets and canned cheese into children's diets through the lunch program, is undergoing renewed scrutiny. A provision added by outgoing Senate Agriculture Committee chair Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who has raised the alarm about obesity in her state, will assist schools in making better use of the commodities by providing healthier recipes and best-practice standards, such as avoiding coating chicken nuggets in flour and deep-frying them.