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

"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.

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