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.

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.

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.

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