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Critics Call Child Nutrition Bill Counterproductive

A student at the Louisa May Alcott Elementary School in Chicago carries his lunch tray. (AP)

Congress is trying to pass a bill by next week that would expand school lunch and other programs to feed needy children. But it doesn't do nearly as much as some anti-hunger advocates want, causing a split between these groups and the White House.

Ending childhood hunger by 2015 has been a priority for President Obama, and ending childhood obesity has been a priority for the first lady. The child nutrition bill is supposed to help do both.  But some hunger groups say that the way things stand now, the legislation would do neither.

Jim Weill, head of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, notes that the legislation would be paid for in part by cutting future food stamp benefits. He says that defeats the purpose of a bill intended to help low-income children get healthier meals.

Hurting The Neediest?

"It should be unacceptable to Congress to pay for anything by cutting food stamp benefits much less for a bill that has in its title The Healthy Anti-Hunger act," he says.

Weill says he thinks the cuts would increase hunger and poverty, and reduce health.

He says that the $2.2 billion in proposed food stamp cuts -- a repeal of future benefit increases -- would hurt the neediest families. More than 1,600 anti-hunger groups, in a letter to lawmakers, say they agree. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in last week, asking House leaders to find a better way to pay for the legislation.

But no one has found one yet and time is running short. Current child nutrition programs expire next Thursday and the White House is pushing hard for the House to forego its own bill and accept a less generous Senate-passed version so the legislation can go straight to the president.

Bipartisan Support For Measure

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the Senate bill goes in the right direction, and has both Democratic and Republican support.

"What we are concerned about with the waning days of this congressional session ending, that we'll be left with the status quo," Vilsack says. "And what the status quo has given us is far too many hungry children and far too many overweight children."

The Senate-passed bill would provide $4.5 billion over 10 years to expand access to free school lunches and after-school meals for low-income children. It would also require more nutritious meals and increase the amount schools are reimbursed for providing free lunches.

As far as paying for the changes with food stamp cuts, Vilsack notes that the cuts would affect benefit increases that were approved as part of last year's stimulus bill and aren't supposed to kick in until 2013.

"What we don't want to do is compromise what we can get today for what may or may not be available in 2013," he told reporters this week on a conference call.

Backing For Senate Bill

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, agrees.

She says Congress is so strapped for cash right now that if lawmakers don't trim the food stamp benefits to pay for this bill, they will do it for something else.

"This money is gone," she says. "Better to have it go to low-income kids than to something totally unrelated."

Besides, she thinks the Senate bill is great.

"It would help to get junk food and soda out of school vending machines, it would help schools serve healthier lunches by providing more resources and training and model recipes, and it would help to bring more healthy produce from farm-to-school programs into schools," she says.

Still, dozens of House Democrats are balking at having to vote to trim future food stamp benefits, especially in an election-year when poverty is on the rise. They are hoping to get a commitment from the White House to do something that will ease the pain, like trying to restore the benefit cuts at some future date.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Congress is trying to pass a bill by next week that would expand school lunch and other programs to feed needy children.�Groups that advocate for children and the poor, though, are not happy with this legislation. That's caused a split between the groups and the White House, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Ending childhood hunger has been a priority for President Obama. Ending childhood obesity's been a priority for the first lady.�The child nutrition bill is supposed to help do both.�But some hunger groups say the way things stand now, the bill would do neither.

Mr. JIM WEILL (Food Research and Action Center): They're paying for the improvements by cutting food stamp benefits.

FESSLER: Jim Weill is head of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington. He says the cuts defeat the purpose of legislation that's intended to help more low-income children get healthier food.

Mr. WEILL: It should be unacceptable to Congress to pay for anything by cutting food stamp benefits, much less for a bill that has in its title the Healthy Anti-Hunger act, which is going to increase hunger, increase poverty and reduce health.

FESSLER: Weill says that the $2.2 billion in proposed food stamp cuts - which are really a repeal of future increases�- would hurt the neediest families.�And more than 1,600 anti-hunger groups, in a letter to lawmakers, say they agree.�Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in last week, asking House leaders to find a better way to pay for the bill.

But no one's found one yet, and time is running short.�Current child nutrition programs expire next Thursday, and the White House is pushing the House to forego its own plan and accept a less generous, Senate-passed bill so it can go straight to the president.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): What we are concerned about with the waning days of this congressional session ending,�that we'll be left with the status quo. And what the status quo has given us is far too many�hungry children and far too many overweight children.

FESSLER: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the Senate bill goes in the right direction, and it has Democratic and Republican support. It would provide $4.5 billion over 10 years to expand access to free school lunches and after-school meals for low-income children.�It would require more nutritious meals and increase school reimbursement rates.

As far as paying for it with food stamp cuts, Vilsack notes that those benefits, approved in last year's stimulus bill, aren't supposed to kick in until 2013.

Sec. VILSACK: What we don't want to do is compromise what we can get today for what may or may not be available in 2013.

FESSLER: Margo Wootan agrees. She's with the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. She says let's face it, Congress is so strapped for cash right now that, if lawmakers don't trim food stamps to pay for this bill, they'll do it for something else.

Ms. MARGO WOOTAN (Center for Science in the Public Interest): This money is gone. Better to have it go to low-income kids than to something totally unrelated.

FESSLER: And besides, she thinks the Senate bill is great.

Ms. WOOTAN: It would help to get junk food and soda out of school vending machines. It would help schools serve healthier lunches by providing more resources and training and model recipes. And it would help to bring more healthy produce from farm-to-school programs into schools.

FESSLER: Still, dozens of House Democrats are balking at having to vote to trim future food stamp benefits, especially in an election-year when poverty is on the rise.�They're hoping to get a commitment from the White House to do something that will ease the pain, like trying to restore the benefit cuts at some future date.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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