Is Federal Government Meddling Into Schools With Child Nutrition Bill?

Critics say price tag is too hefty, supporters say change is needed.

December 1, 2010, 2:30 PM

Dec. 1, 2010— -- The House of Representatives today delayed a vote on the $4.5 billion child nutrition bill that would ban greasy food and sugary soft drinks from schools. The legislation has triggered criticism for its hefty price tag and new nutritional requirements that some say shouldn't come from the federal government.

The bill is expected to be brought up later this week.

The legislation has the support of the White House and first lady Michelle Obama, who has made childhood obesity a central focus.

The Senate bill, which passed with unanimous bipartisan consent in August, 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.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Tuesday painted the bill as a moral issue, and linked it to U.S. national security.

"We should pass this legislation immediately," Pelosi said on a conference call with reporters. "It's about our competitiveness. It's about our national security. It's about our moral responsibility to our children."

But not everyone is warming up to the idea. House Republicans and three educational groups charge 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 question 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 say 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."

Child Nutrition Plan Raises Concerns About Costs, Federal Oversight

Wootan called the idea that the bill sets up a nanny state is "ridiculous."

"These are kids. If we were banning soda and vending machines for adults you could cry nanny state. But we parents send our children off to school and we expect the school to keep them safe and to care for them and that includes not serving them food that makes them fat and gives them heart diseases and diabetes," she said. "This isn't nanny state run amok. This is sensible protections for children."

Republicans have also questioned the hefty price tag of the bill, which would be paid in part by cuts to the federal food stamp program. At a time when there are a myriad of other issues to be dealt with in the nation's education system, and the deficit is at record levels, some have questioned the timing of the bill's passage.

Those who are objecting to the bill also say it will add to school's costs.

"All of our support is tempered by what we see as unfunded mandates and where bad policy or bad implementation will get in the way of good lunch policy," said Noelle Ellerson, assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy at American Association of School Administrators. "It's one thing to call for improvement in some local decision that leads to local changes in costs. It's another thing to make changes at the federal level and not provide the funding or put into place changes that could translate into unfunded costs at the local level."

But supporters say that getting rid of junk food in vending machines is actually good for schools. If they sell more lunch meals, they will get more federal dollars.

And Democrats counter that the benefits outweigh the costs in the long term.

"Some folks will say, 'how can we afford this bill at the moment?'" Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. "How can we afford not to pass it? Leaving millions of children hungry and malnourished now in the name of budget cutting is penny wise and pound foolish."

ABC News' Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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