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Congress taking up school lunch bill

By MARY BETH NEVULIS, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI   |   July 20, 2010 at 4:19 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, July 20 (UPI) -- Legislation making its way through the U.S. Congress could change the way U.S. children eat lunch in school and it could be more expensive than many people will expect.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee approved a bill last week aimed at improving the health for America's children through increased funding for school nutrition aid and school free lunch programs, among other means. In March, a U.S. Senate committee approved a similar bill. Both now await votes by the full House and Senate.

There's a significant difference between the two bills, though -- about $3.5 billion over 10 years.

House Education Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said the money spent now would help the children and the country over the course of years.

"By setting these minimum standards and by making these important investments, we fulfill the promise to our children of a healthy future," Miller said.

The House bill was changed from the Senate version, which had a $4.5 billion increase in spending on the programs. The House version now includes a significant number of additional programs, raising its increased spending total to $8 billion over 10 years.

Supporters of the programs argue that they're valuable to ensuring healthy children down the road but detractors say there has to be a way to improve children's nutrition without running up the federal deficit.

"If Congress passes this legislation, as it stands today, we expect spending that will add roughly $7 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years," U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said Thursday during final committee action on the bill.

The cost of the Senate bill, in contrast, is fully offset and paid for, said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who said he is optimistic about the bill's success on the Senate floor.

"With the deficit situation we have around here, it's always easier to pass something if it's paid for," Harkin said. "Hopefully our bill has a good chance."

While pointing out that the House bill adds spending, Harkin said he liked a lot of the added programs.

"There are certain things we ought to be spending money on," Harkin said. "We've always been penny wise and pound foolish about these things. If we have unhealthy kids now, we're going to have unhealthy adults down the road."

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Some additions to the original House bill:

-- an organic food pilot program

-- transportation to school lunch programs in the summer for children in rural areas

-- a pilot program that would introduce plant-based proteins for vegetarians

-- a "nutrition corps" of employees to help schools and communities become healthier

-- a pilot program to offer low-fat cheeses and milk to schools

-- Weekends Without Hunger, which would provide food to low-income children on weekends and school holidays

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