Advocates prepare for lame-duck nutrition battle

Advocates on behalf of poverty and children's issues are gearing up for a lame-duck session that many see as their last chance to get a childhood nutrition bill passed.

Supporters expect that a Senate-passed bill could pass as a stand-alone or be incorporated into an omnibus package if it doesn't get the votes it needs, but they're split over how to pay for it. Poverty advocates favor the bill, but not if it's paid for by cutting the food-stamp program.

"We cannot trade off one excellent nutrition program for another," said Mariana Chilton of Witnesses to Hunger during a conference call announcing a new report from the Food Research and Action Center.

The report, released Tuesday, found that 17.7 percent of Americans reported having struggled to get food on the table between April and September. That's down from the last quarter of 2009 and much less than what advocates say would have happened in a faltering economy if last year's recovery act hadn't boosted food stamp spending.

The Senate-passed bill would move up the end of that temporary increase by five months, to November 2013, saving $2.2 billion. The $4.5 billion bipartisan proposal would expand eligibility for school meal programs; establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools; and provide a 6-cent increase for each school lunch to help cafeterias serve healthier meals.

In August, 106 Democratic House members wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opposing the food-stamp cuts.

But President Obama last month rekindled hope that a solution is possible, when his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, listed childhood nutrition alongside ratification of the new START Treaty and the Bush tax cuts as being the Democratic priorities for the lame-duck session. Obama has committed to addressing the food-stamp issue after the bill passes, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. And more than 950 public health and other groups have signed on over the past few weeks.

"All in all," she told The Hill, "I am hopeful the child nutrition bill will be passed soon."

The debate coincides with the recent release of two new reports documenting the cost of Americans' lack of interest in fruits and vegetables. The average American consumes only 43 percent of the daily intake of fruit and only 57 percent of vegetables as recommended in federal dietary guidelines, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

Poor nutrition is costing $56 billion a year to treat just three diet-related chronic diseases — coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer — according to a new report from the foundation. The nonprofit blames the federal government's relegating of fruits and vegetables to a "low funding priority status" for part of the problem.

"The research reinforces the importance of fruits and vegetables to good health. Increased consumption helps reduce the risk of obesity and many diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers," the group's president and CEO, Elizabeth Pivonka, said in a statement. "Everyone can benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. That is why the federal government must make fruit and vegetable spending a public health priority."

Concurrently, the group released a "State of the Plate" report examining America's produce consumption. It found that while children have increased their fruit consumption by at least 5 percent since 2004, teenagers and seniors appear to be eating less fruits and vegetables.