Child nutrition reauthorization faces resistance over deficit worries & 'not proven' claims

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, July 1 – House Education & Labor Committee Chair George Miller (D-CA) announced Thursday he intends to mark up child nutrition legislation the week of July 12. But Thursday's hearing on his bill, H.R.5504, Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, highlighted deep divisions over the bill.

Miller opened the hearing by painting a stark picture to demonstrate the need for boosting support for the federal school meals programs and other nutrition initiatives: “We are on the brink of a national health crisis that is affecting our youngest children. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Nearly one in three children is obese. The frightening reality in many doctors offices is very young children presenting with adult onset health problems like diabetes and heart disease. At the same time, over 16 million children are hungry and live in households where families are struggling to put food on the table. In this economy, families are faced with the difficult and daunting choices of paying their bills and keeping the lights on or putting food on the table. They simply do not have enough resources to make ends meet.”

Testifying in Thursday's House hearing on the Child Nutrition reauthorization bill,
L to R, Dr. Eduardo Sanchez & James Weill. Photo: Agri-Pulse.
Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack echoed Miller's call for urgent action as did a number of committee members including Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) who said he is “honored to be a co-sponsor or this legislation.” Saying that he would “speak from the heart, Vilsack acknowledged the need to deal with the federal deficit. Then he insisted repeatedly that for reasons of educational achievement, healthcare, national security (“only 25% of youngsters . . . ages 19 to 24 are fit for military service”), and morality, Congress needs to improve child nutrition programs. He added that while Congress faces many complex issues, “I believe there is none more important than this.”
Vilsack told committee members “I'm here today to urge action on this bill” to address a moral issue: “A country as strong, as rich, as powerful as ours, and yet we have hundreds of thousands of youngsters who are hungry.”
The Committee's Ranking Member John Kline (R-MN) chose to highlight potential costs. He agreed that Congress has an “obligation to prevent hunger and improve child nutrition responsibly.” Speaking for Republicans on the child nutrition bill, he confirmed that “We stand ready on this side of the aisle to reauthorize the programs and improve their effectiveness and efficiency.” But he objected to “the $8 billion price tag attached to this bill . . . on top of the nearly $20 billion we are already spending each year on these programs; on top of the more than half billion dollars in stimulus funds appropriated last year for nutrition, obesity, and other community wellness programs; on top of the $15 billion Congress added this year in the health care bill for community-based prevention programs, including nutrition and exercise programs.”
Kline also voiced concern about the matching Senate reauthorization bill's plan to move $2.5 billion from EQIP conservation spending to help offset increased child nutrition costs. In response, Vilsack explained that “these are difficult issues.” Without answering directly about EQIP, Vilsack said that “it's important to adequately fund conservation” and that there may be other areas in the USDA budget and in other parts of the federal budget where cuts could be found.

On the tricky issue of finding budget offsets, Vilsack told Kline “You give us a target, and we will work with you to find that resource.” But he pointed out that in the past when USDA has proposed cuts to offset new USDA spending initiatives, Congress ended up using the proposed cuts for non-USDA purposes. So Vilsack told Kline, “Let's make a deal here” - so that if cuts are identified, any savings are reserved for USDA, not switched to other uses.

Kline's concern about spending scarce taxpayer dollars to boost nutrition programs was amplified by one witness. Political scientist Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow at the conservative 
Heritage Foundation, said that with a $1.2 trillion federal budget deficit in FY2011, “it is clear that the current growth of government spending is unsustainable. In that context, calls for long- term increases in spending on school meal programs are irresponsible.”

Rector concluded that hunger in the U.S. should not be considered a problem since “If average welfare aid and average earnings are combined, the total resources is likely to come to between $40,000 and $46,000 for each lower-income family with children in the U.S. It is very difficult to reconcile this level of spending with conventional claims that millions of lower-income families are chronically hungry, malnourished, or ill-housed.” He said that his analysis of USDA reports shows that “Poor children are generally shielded from food insecurity” and that only “One child in a thousand went a whole day without eating at least once during the year because the family lacked funds for food.” He blamed “political advocates” for claims of “widespread chronic hunger in the U.S.”

Rector warned that “most proposed policy responses to food insecurity call for giving low-income persons more money to purchase food despite the fact that most low-income persons, like most Americans, already eat too much.” Along with Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Rector dismissed the claimed link between hunger and rampant obesity as not based on sound scientific evidence.

Rector did join other witnesses in saying that all Americans would benefit from improving their diets. But he concluded that “There is no need for mandatory national standards, nor for the U.S Congress to assume the role of national 'cookie czar,' dictating food policies for local schools. Such a usurpation of power would be unwise and unwarranted. . . there is little or no evidence suggesting that government spending on child nutrition programs can be a cost effective means of reducing overweight and obesity.”

On the expert panel along with Rector, New York Chef and restaurant owner Tom Colicchio, U.S. Army Major General (Ret.) Paul Monroe, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas VP and Chief Medical Officer
 Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, and Food Research & Action Center President James Weill, all testified to ample evidence of substantial long-term benefits from improving child nutrition programs.

Chef Colicchio concluded “Let’s fund school lunches and breakfasts at a spending level that significantly raises the quality and variety of what schools can afford, and get rid of the junk food in vending machines once and for all. Let’s fund healthy snacks and meals in day care centers and after school programs. Let’s expand access by broadening area eligibility requirements for summer feeding programs, and expanding direct certification to eliminate redundant paperwork for families and schools. There can be no better investment – no better stimulus to our economy – than feeding this nation’s children healthily and well.

Rep. Kline's conclusion, however, was that while there's bipartisan support for child nutrition programs, “we don't have enough money to do everything we want to do.” On this issue of costs, Dr. Sanchez related the issue to the nation's exploding healthcare costs and explained that “The bill we are talking about today is estimated to cost about $8 billion dollars over 10 years. That is less than one tenth the cost of obesity in just the state Texas over the same ten years.”

To read the written testimony prepared for the Education Committee hearing, go to:

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