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Child Nutrition Act Pits School Lunch Money Against Food Stamps

Cloudy. That's how we'd describe the prospects for passage of the massive bill funding school lunch and other child nutrition programs this year.

Efforts to move the bill have been stalled in Congress for months, due in part to splits among the advocates over how the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act should be paid for.

The bill's name is "an incredible irony," says Mariana Chilton of Witnesses to Hunger. Chilton and other anti-hunger groups oppose the Senate version because it would take future increases slated for the food stamps program and instead put them towards improving school lunch funding and nutrition.

But as Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest tells NPR's Pam Fessler today, that's just not a winning strategy.

CSPI is one of more than 1,000 groups, including unions, anti-hunger organizations, and the food industry, that will be sending a letter in the next few days urging the House to accept the Senate bill when Congress comes back next week.

The supporters who signed the letter "realize they can take this really terrific bill now or wait until the next Congress when they have to compete with the farm bill reauthorization," she tells Fessler.

Plus, you can almost guarantee that the newly-minted, take charge House Republicans will be looking for ways to cut spending if the battle drags on into the new year.

Still, food stamp advocates say there is a chance to increase funding for school lunch without using food stamp cuts -- put the whole thing into the omnibus.

(For you non-Washington-types, that's usually the last big legislative train out of town before the lame duck Congress leaves and the new crew gets sworn in.)

The Food Research and Action Center issued new stats today showing that just under 18 percent of Americans reported since January that they have struggled to feed their families. That's slightly down from last year's 18.5 percent.

FRAC attributes the leveling off to the increases in food stamp benefits under the economic recovery act. President Jim Weill says it shows the benefits are mitigating the most damaging effects of the recession – benefits that are in jeopardy if the Senate child nutrition bill goes through.

All the infighting among groups who should be partnering could cause some heartburn for the Obama Administration, which is trying to make a deal.

White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass still thinks its a go. The U.S. is "by far the most productive and efficient agriculture society in the world, we still have 49 million Americans who are food insecure, and 16 million of them are children," he said last month, according to Food Safety News.

Still, advocates acknowledge they're in a bind.

"When an animal is stuck in a trap, sometimes the animal will have to bite off its own hand," Chilton said on the conference call today. "We're stuck in that situation," she added.

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