Lousy School Lunch Bill, One Step Closer to Passage

Michelle Obama started her government-wide "Let's Move" program to improve children's health and nutrition, but Blanche Lincoln's the author of the Senate child nutrition bill. And Lincoln is no Michelle Obama.
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Why do Democrats put their least loyal Senator in charge of one of their highest profile issues? Michelle Obama started her government-wide "Let's Move" program to improve children's health and nutrition, but Blanche Lincoln's the author of the Senate child nutrition bill that just passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee yesterday. And Blanche Lincoln is no Michelle Obama. She's not even as progressive as Barack Obama, who called for $10 billion in new money over 10 years for child nutrition, a number Lincoln reduced by more than half.

To put that in easier to understand terms, Obama's proposal would have given up to $.18 in addition funds to each child's school lunch. Lincoln's bill gives each lunch $.06. Compare that to the School Nutrition Association's request to raise the current $2.68 "reimbursement rate" (the amount the federal government reimburses schools for each free lunch served to a low income child) by $.35 just to keep the quality of the lunches the same and make up for schools' current budgetary shortfall. School lunch reformer Ann Cooper calls for an extra $1 per lunch to actually make lunches healthy. So any amount under $.35 is no reform at all, and Lincoln gave us $.06.

If that's not disappointing enough, consider where Lincoln "found" the extra money for child nutrition: conservation programs. Under the Democrats' "paygo" (pay as you go) budget practice, Lincoln has to find a way to pay for every new dollar spent, either by cutting funds in other programs or by raising taxes. Some have called for cutting agricultural subsidies to the largest farmers, but Lincoln instead took $2.8 billion from the Environmental Quality Incentives Progam (EQIP), an agriculture conservation program, to fund school lunch.

Some credit should go to Lincoln for the handful of good things she included in the bill. When a high percent of children are eligible for free school meals, it's cheaper to provide free meals to every child in the school than fuss with eligibility paperwork for so many kids. Therefore, the Lincoln bill allows for "universal meal service" (i.e. all kids eat for free automatically) in high poverty areas. Lincoln's bill also directly certifies any child in a household receiving food stamps for free school meals. The qualifications for the two programs are the same, so it makes little sense to make a family fill out the paperwork twice. Both of these measures will help extend free meals to more hungry children.

It's true that bad food is better than no food at all, but why are we forced to choose the lesser of two evils? Current school lunches are, on average, lousy. Of course some schools stand out by providing excellent, healthy lunches to students, but most do not. In fact, only 6-7 percent of schools meet the USDA's current lax nutrition standards. The USDA will soon upgrade its nutrition standards based on recommendations fro the Institute of Medicine, but how can they expect schools to meet the new, stricter standards when they can't even meet the current ones? And a recent University of Michigan study found that children who eat school lunch are more likely to be overweight or obese than children who brought lunch from home.

Unfortunately, the only real way to improve the quality of school lunch is money. Schools need money for better food but they also need money for labor, training, and equipment. And the equipment needed is sometimes as simple as knives and cutting boards, essential tools for preparing fresh fruits and vegetables that all too many schools lack. And it's money that this bill does not provide.

In the case of school lunch in particular, where the most vulnerable members of our society - low income children who cannot afford to bring a healthy lunch from home - are affected, the government's failure to provide healthy food is utterly unconscionable. It's also stupid, since an estimated 1 out of every 3 children born in 2000 will suffer from Type II Diabetes during their lifetime, and diabetes is one of the most expensive health problems to treat. Every penny we don't pay now for school lunches is money we will spend later on Medicaid and Medicare for children who grow up to suffer from diabetes. But, as a House staffer put it to me when I raised that point, "the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] doesn't score that way." When the government tabulates whether or not a program is saving money, future expenditures on predictable, preventable health conditions aren't added in.

The notion that we lack the money to pay for better school lunch is a false one. We have two large, untapped sources of funding. First, outdated defense programs. Barney Frank recently said:

You know, as I've noted the other day, we still have three ways to drop thermal nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union: intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and the strategic (INAUDIBLE). Given the fact that there is no more Soviet Union, I'm going to be radical and say to the Pentagon, why don't you pick two of the three and save us billions of dollars?

The other source is corporate taxes. I'm not even suggesting raising taxes. I'm merely suggesting that corporations pay taxes AT ALL. Currently, two thirds of corporations do not. These represent two enormous untapped sources of money that the federal government should absolutely use to benefit the American people. Yet, instead, corporate lobbyists are prioritized over the American people. Let's hope the full Senate is more forward thinking than the Senate Ag Committee and cross our fingers that the bill gets better when it is debated on the Senate floor.

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