By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Dec. 2 – With high political drama right up to the final vote, the House passed school-meals legislation Thursday in a 264-157 vote. Since the House passed the Senate version without amendment, the “Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act” S. 3307 now goes to President Obama to be signed into law.

House Republicans tried to derail passage Thursday by offering an amendment to add a requirement for criminal background checks. Adding the amendment would have sent the bill back to the Senate, perhaps delaying the bill enough to prevent passage this year – with the result that the legislative process would have had to start all over again on the bill in next year's new Congress. To avoid the delay – and avoid being branded as opposing background checks for employees working with children – Democrats got the background check provision passed but in separate legislation.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) who has championed such legislation for over 15 years welcomed the bill's final passage. He commented that “For too long, we have allowed the unchecked sale of junk food in our schools to undermine not just the health of our kids, but also the desires of parents, and our taxpayer investment in school meals. House passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act moves us one step closer to requiring common-sense nutrition standards for the foods and beverages sold in schools. With this provision, the bill will help make the healthy choice, the easy choice. We also know that it’s the choice that parents around the country prefer. Survey after survey shows that parents support school nutrition standards at school that reinforce the healthy choices that parents try to make for their kids at home.”

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) who headed the fight for the bill in the House said that “Updating the nutrition standards for foods sold in vending machines, a la carte lines, and school snack bars is a common sense way to confront childhood obesity head on.” She was referring to the bill's provisions which require the Secretary of Agriculture to propose science-based school nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, including vending machines, snack bars, and school stores, not later than one year after enactment of the bill, based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack welcomed the bill's passage Thursday, commenting that “This is an historic victory for our nation's youngsters. This legislation will allow USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, the chance to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. . . together with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! initiative, this administration has made it a goal to end childhood obesity within in a generation. Our national security, economic competitiveness and health and wellness of our children will improve as a result of the action Congress took today.”

Mrs. Obama herself called the bill “a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation that will significantly improve the quality of meals that children receive at school and will play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity.”

United Fresh Produce Association Nutrition and Health VP Dr. Lorelei DiSogra commented that “This historic legislation is a huge victory for children, their families and schools across America and a victory for fruits and vegetables and public health. For the first time in more than 30 years, Congress is increasing the federal reimbursement rate for school lunch by $.06/meal, specifically making possible the serving of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. United Fresh is extremely gratified to have helped spearhead this landmark legislation that promises to dramatically improve the wellbeing of more than 31 million school children in America.”

United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel said “United Fresh and our members have helped lead the charge for healthier school meals for many years. It is so encouraging to see Congress recognize that giving kids healthier options is a great first step toward fostering a healthier country.”
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) endorsed the child nutrition reauthorization legislation and said the bill will allow school meal programs to offer a greater variety of nutritious foods in school cafeterias nationwide.
“By establishing nutrition standards for all foods served or sold in schools, the legislation ensures that students will receive a consistent message about healthy choices.” said SNA President Nancy Rice, M.Ed., RD, LD, SNS, State Director of the Georgia Department of Education, School Nutrition Division. The legislation contains other critical improvements to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs that SNA has advocated for, including the creation of standards and a certification process for school foodservice professionals and the establishment of guidelines on which local school expenses (such as electricity, telephones and janitorial services) can be charged to school nutrition programs.

National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson said “On behalf of U.S. farmers, ranchers and rural resident members of National Farmers Union, I thank the House for the bipartisan effort that went into the passage of this bill. It is essential that we provide for the health and well-being of America’s children, and this legislation accomplishes that goal. . . America’s family farmers and ranchers are committed to resolving our nation’s hunger and obesity problems and this legislation is a step in the right direction.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) who authored the bill and guided it to unanimous passage by the Senate said passage “puts us on a path toward improving the health of the next generation of Americans, providing common-sense solutions to tackling childhood hunger and obesity. This bill ensures that our children will receive healthier, more nutritious meals and removes the red tape that prevents so many from participating in nutrition programs. Because of this bill, an additional 29 million meals a year will be served through afterschool programs, touching the lives of millions of Americans who are working hard to make ends meet during tough economic times.”

Organic Trade Association (OTA) Executive Director and CEO Christine Bushway said “OTA is pleased that this important legislation has passed and very excited that it includes OTA’s proposal for an organic pilot program giving children access to organic foods as part of healthy school feeding programs. The health status of our children is crucial to the well-being of our nation’s future, and the food that they are fed in schools is key to their health status.”  The bill includes a $10 million Organic Pilot Program that, if funds are appropriated, will require require schools to purchase organic foods.

Bushway also noted that the bill includes the $40 million “Farm-to-School Program” creating a USDA competitive grant and technical assistance program to increase the use of local foods from small- and medium-sized farms in schools.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said “Today, the House took action to tackle the twin challenges of childhood hunger and childhood obesity. Addressing childhood nutrition is a moral issue. It’s about our future, our health, and our well-being as a nation. But it is also a matter of our competitiveness and our national security. Our future prosperity depends on having a highly-educated, skilled workforce that is ready to compete and get the job done. Yet far too many children in our country are held back by hunger from reaching their full potential. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a critical step forward in correcting this injustice and giving all of our youth a healthy choice and a fair shot at a better future.”

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