House panel approves sweeping expansion of child nutrition programs

Thursday’s committee vote was 32 to 13, with three panel Republicans — Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), Vernon Ehlers (Mich.) and Todd Platts (Pa.) — joining all voting Democrats in support of the bill. 

“Given the serious fiscal challenges facing our country,” Platts said, “we must ensure that we devote our limited resources to our nation’s most urgent priorities.”

Other Republicans aren’t so sure. While most GOP leaders are supportive of the move to reauthorize the existing nutrition bill, they’ve balked at the broader expansions, which come with a pricetag expected to be around $8 billion over the next decade.

Rep. John Kline (Minn.), senior Republican on the Education and Labor panel, said the bill represents a “costly expansion of the federal government at a time the country can least afford it.”

“Families and small businesses across the country are making tough decisions to weather this economy,” Kline said. “They deserve a federal government that does the same.”

In response, Miller vowed to pay for the whole bill, saying House PAYGO rules force him to do it. “We will have in place the offsets before we go to the floor,” Miller said, without offering specifics. The California Democrat also pointed out that the bill merely authorizes the spending. The actual funding, he noted, is a battle for appropriators.

Miller’s bill would streamline enrollment in school meal programs by tapping information already available through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to certify eligibility without additional paperwork. It also expands afterschool meal programs nationwide, and hikes federal payments to schools by 6 cents per lunch — the first non-inflationary increase in almost four decades.

Democrats were also successful in attaching amendments to launch pilot programs to bring more vegan and organic options to the nation’s school children. 

A similar Senate bill would expand child nutrition programs by $4.5 billion over 10 years. Sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), that proposal passed the Senate Agriculture Committee with unanimous support in March.  

Thursday’s House vote won immediate praise from Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move” program targets childhood obesity. Although both congressional bills fall short of the $10 billion expansion proposed in the White House budget, the first lady urged both House and Senate leaders to pass their reforms “without delay.”

“The President looks forward to signing a final bill this year,” she said in a statement. 

Time is an issue — last October, Congress passed a temporary extension of child nutrition programs, but that law expires at the end of September.

Bruce Lesley, head of First Focus, a bipartisan child welfare group, said this week that of all the child-centered legislation his organization is pushing this year, the nutrition bill looks the most promising. 

Still, the slow pace of the Senate — combined with an ever shrinking legislative calendar — means that nothing is guaranteed this election year. 

“Gridlock,” Lesley said, “is hurting kids.”

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