Fix Unhealthy School Lunches? That'll Be $8 Billion

PHOTO Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio testifies before congress, July 1, 2010, giving ideas on how to improve school lunches.Courtesy David Hartzler, Education and Labor Committee.
Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio testifies before congress, July 1, 2010, giving ideas on how to improve school lunches.

Lawmakers, researchers and even a celebrity chef joined forces Thursday to urge Congress to pass an $8 billion bill to increase funding for school lunch programs and child nutrition.

But is the outcome worth the price tag?

Testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee, one researcher argued that such programs have not been properly evaluated to warrant such a big investment.

"Calls for long-term increases in spending on school meal programs are irresponsible," said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noting that the budget deficit in fiscal year 2011 will be $1.2 trillion, or 8.3 percent of the gross domestic product.

"I have spent my entire career ... on this kind of spending and I can tell you I absolutely have no idea where all that money goes," Rector said. "Before you propose spending even more money, you ought to at least have a reasonable accounting of where this money is currently going."

VIDEO: An evaluation shows free lunches increased education opportunity and success.Play

Rector's concerns were countered by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and others who spoke out in favor of the "Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act" as a means to reauthorize and reform the Department of Agriculture's child nutrition programs.

"I'm here today to urge action on this bill," said Vilsack, who abandoned his prepared remarks to "speak from the heart."

"If we don't do this this year, it is not going to get any easier," Vilsack said. "It's going to get much, much tougher in the future, and there will be one more year of delay in terms of improving the quality of the nutritional value of what we are feeding our children. ... We are not doing right by our kids."

The bill, which mirrors the first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative, is intended to combat childhood obesity and fight hunger.

"Why, in this great country, where we produce enough food, are children going hungry every day?" celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who serves as the head judge on Bravo's "Top Chef" program, asked the House panel.

The third season of the TV show, which was taped in Washington, D.C., recently challenged it's contestants to create a healthy school lunch.

"What do you know?" Colicchio asked. "The kids ate it and they asked for seconds, they asked for thirds."

Colicchio, who described himself as the "son of a lunch lady," spoke out against the argument that all kids want to eat are burgers and fries.

"Come on, people!" he said. "We're adults. It's up to us to do better."

Supporters Say Improved School Nutrition Will Aid Fight Against Childhood Obesity

There are roughly 10 million obese children and adolescents age five to 19 in the United States.

If adopted, the bill would streamline and increase access for children to healthy food during the school day and mandate national nutrition standards for food served in schools. It also would encourage schools to form relationships with local farm -- both as a source of fresh produce and as an educational opportunity to teach students more about where their food comes from.

"We cannot ignore the fact that for millions of children, the only meals that they can count on are those they get at school or in child care," said Rep. George Miller, D-California, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee. Miller introduced the legislation in June.

"If we work in the schools to both increase nutritional opportunities and educate kids about the foods they're eating," Miller said, "we have a chance to really, dramatically drive down future health care costs. And we have a real opportunity to ensure our children will be able to reach for success and live healthier lives."

Obesity-related medical costs are nearly 10 percent of all annual medical spending and were estimated to be $147 million in 2009.

The senior Republican on the committee, Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota, also raised concerns about the hefty price tag attached to the bill.

"We stand ready on this side of the aisle to reauthorize the programs and improve their effectiveness and efficiency," Kline said. "What has given us pause, however, is the $8 billion price tag attached to this bill. That's $8 billion the majority plans to spend -- on top of the nearly $20 billion we are already spending each year on these programs

"Let me be clear: Our child nutrition programs are a worthy investment, and one we will continue to prioritize," he said. "But at a time of record debts and deficits, creating new programs for green cafeterias and federalizing our local wellness policies and nutrition standards seems fiscally irresponsible."

Agriculture Secretary: 'Let's Make a Deal'

In response to Kline, Vilsack said the Agriculture Department is willing to help determine funding for the legislation.

"This is extremely important, and I absolutely understand the whole issue of deficits," Vilsack said. "I was a governor. I dealt with balanced budgets for eight consecutive years. It is not easy to do. Having said that, I'm committed to finding the resources, wherever that might be."

Kline asked if funding decisions and targets could be made before the legislation goes to the House floor for consideration by the full House of Representatives.

Vilsack responded, "Let's make a deal here. ... We get this through the committee, we get it on the floor, we'll help you find the resources."

Rector argued that the aggregate cost of this type of assistance is largely unknown because the spending is highly fragmented into more than 70 separate programs, which he claimed makes it difficult to determine the average level of benefits that a family is receiving.

Once dubbed the "intellectual godfather" of welfare reform, Rector was at a loss when asked to give his alternative to the legislation up for debate. Instead he argued for a more holistic approach.

"I think that you need to provide some school assistance," he said. "However, it's very important to put this in an overall budget context. For the most part, all of these programs are discussed in what I call the 'great charade,' which is a pretense that these programs are the only thing that stand between these children and starvation."

According to the Department of Agriculture, roughly 17 million households, 14.6 percent, experienced "food insecurity" during 2008.

Vilsack strongly disagreed with Rector.

"There's a significant number of empty calories that are currently being provided in some of our schools," he said. "It's hard for me to understand how we couldn't have a positive impact on this if we altered and structured this with more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and low fat dairy and less fat.

"It just seems to be common sense that you're going to have some impact and effect on this," Vilsack said.

In concluding the hearing, Miller announced that the legislation will be marked up the week after Congress returns from the Independence Day recess.