Coming Soon? Healthier School Lunches

Move over hamburgers, tater tots and pizza. Healthier school lunches could be just around the corner. While unhealthy foods may be staples in most school cafeterias, new child nutrition legislation recently passed in the Senate could bring major changes to lunch lines across the country.

The $4.5 billion "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" approved in the Senate on Thursday would expand children's access to federal nutrition programs and, according to supporters, improve the nutritional quality of the school lunches. The legislation marks the largest investment in child nutrition programs since their inception.

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

Current funding for school nutrition programs will expire on September 30th unless Congress approves a new initiative.

The bill now moves on to the House, where it is expected to pass. However, the House, which has recessed for the summer, does not have a timeline for when it will vote on the bill.

"The Senate has seized a tremendous opportunity to do what's right for our children and our families," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the bill's sponsor and the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will finally put us on a path toward improving the health of the next generation of Americans, providing common-sense solutions to tackling childhood hunger and obesity. This is a resounding victory for our nation's children and an investment that will last a lifetime."

The bill would establish nutrition standards for school lunches and all food sold in schools, including vending machines. For the first time in over three decades it would increase the federal reimbursement rate, by approximately six cents a meal. In an effort to combat hunger, it would also raise the number of children eligible for free or reduced-cost meals and expand after-school snack programs to provide full meals.

The bill was passed without a vote under a bipartisan strategy and is paid for through offsets and stimulus funding. "At a time when families are scrimping and saving to make their own budgets work, I can't think of a better message to send than to pass a fully paid for bill that will help their children live longer, healthier, more productive lives," Lincoln said.

However, in order to pay for the legislation the Senate bill takes $2.2 billion away from funding for food stamp programs, a move that has cost them the support of some hunger advocates. The decision to take funding away from food stamps was made after Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee opposed initial efforts to offset the costs of the legislation by cutting conservation subsidies to farmers.

Child Nutrition Bill Mirrors Michelle Obama's Fight Against Childhood Obesity

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has supported the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition act as central to her fight against childhood obesity, offered high praise for the Senate bill.

"I am thrilled that Congress has taken a major step forward today in passing the Child Nutrition bill – a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will help us provide healthier school meals to children across America and will play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity," Mrs. Obama said in a statement released shortly after the bill was passed. "While childhood obesity cannot be solved overnight, with everyone working together, there's no question that it can be solved -- and today's vote moves us one step closer to reaching that goal."

Obesity has rapidly become one of the biggest public health challenges facing the country; in the U.S. roughly a third of children and teens are obese. "This bill will help us take head-on the epidemics of childhood obesity, diabetes and other diet related diseases," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said.

The House version of the bill, the "Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act," was approved last month by the Education and Labor Committee but the full House has yet to take it up. The House version is more expansive and would provide $8 billion for school nutrition programs, a figure more in line with the president's request for an unprecedented $10 billion in the FY2011 budget to overhaul the Child Nutrition Act.

Critics of the House legislation have questioned the hefty price tag.

"Calls for long-term increases in spending on school meal programs are irresponsible," Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, testified before a House hearing last month.

Critics Question Hefty Price Tag of School Lunch Overhaul

"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."