The House of Representatives, by a vote of 264-157, today passed the child nutrition bill, which was praised by first lady Michelle Obama as "a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation."
The $4.5 billion child nutrition bill would ban greasy food and sugary soft drinks from schools. The legislation – already passed on a bipartisan vote in the Senate -- triggered criticism for its hefty price tag and new nutritional requirements that some say shouldn't come from the federal government.
The legislation was backed by the Obama administration and the first lady, who has made childhood obesity a central focus.
The bill would expand eligibility for school lunch programs, establish nutrition standards for all school meals, and encourage schools to use locally produced food. It would also raise the reimbursement rate to six cents per meal, marking the first time in over 30 years that Congress has increased funding for school lunch programs.
"This is another step toward improving nutritional health of our nation's children and in so doing combating obesity," said Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which backed the bill.
But not everyone was warm to the idea. House Republicans and three educational groups charged that the bill is too burdensome for schools and doesn't provide sufficient resources to cover costs that schools will have to incur.
Critics also questioned whether the federal government should be the one setting standards on what schools can or cannot serve.
The new federal nutrition standards "wouldn't just apply to school meals but things like bake sales that are also used as fundraisers, or concessions sold at sporting events," said Alexa Marrero, spokeswoman for House Education and Labor committee Republicans. "You're really getting into federal mandates on what people are allowed to eat as opposed to focusing on providing healthy meals through the school lunch and breakfast programs."
Possible 2012 presidential contender Sarah Palin challenged federal nutrition standards when she brought cookies to a Pennsylvania school in early November in a clear rebuke to the first lady's nutrition campaign.
"What she is telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat," Palin said in a radio interview with Laura Ingraham recently. "Just leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions and then our country gets back on the right track."
But supporters of the child nutrition bill said the federal mandate governing school nutritional standards is not a new one, or unique to this particular Congress.
"The school lunch program is a national program. Almost all the funding comes from the federal government, about 5 percent of the funding comes from state and local sources," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It is not a new thing. It dates back to the 1940's and the Truman administration when the school lunch program was established as a federal program."
Wootan called the idea that the bill sets up a nanny state is "ridiculous."