PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, shared lunch with Thornton students in April.

Colorado child and health advocacy groups are frenziedly writing and calling Washington as the clock ticks down on the 111th Congress — but the legislation necessary to reauthorize funding of the nation’s school lunch program still has not been approved.

One major hurdle was cleared this month when the House Education and Labor Committee passed HR 5504, the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children’s Act.”

The $8 billion, 10-year package of legislation would expand access to free and reduced-priced school meals, expand summer feeding and other out-of-school meal programs, and boost the quality of school meals while increasing funding for nutrition education. The legislation passed 32-13.

In March, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a similar — though much less costly — bill, the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat who serves on that committee, said the legislation is a priority, particularly given his former job as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

But now, both bills must still be passed by their respective chambers and then be reconciled before the legislation can be signed into law. And with the August recess looming and a dwindling number of days left for this Congress to act, advocates of the legislation fear it may not work its way to the top of the priority pile.

Read the bills

Click here for a summary of the House “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010.”

Click here for a summary of the Senate “Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.”

Make the call
Toll-free number for the Capitol Hill switchboard: 866-277-7617

Or, as one Senate staffer noted, it’s a top priority but there are a lot of other top priorities as well, and it’s hard for school lunches to edge out jobs and the economy for legislative time. Still, on Wednesday, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, brought up the legislation on the Senate floor and requested at least eight hours to discuss the bill.

“No one is opposed,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, the local advocacy group that has taken the lead in promoting the legislation.

“The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority,” Underhill said. “So right now, we’re just encouraging everybody to call. The policies enacted today will be written on the brains and bodies of the next generation.

“If Colorado is serious on the issue of education reform, you have to tackle the issue of hunger first,” she added. “You can have the best teachers in the best classrooms with the best training but if you have a classroom full of hungry kids, none of that matters.”

Hunger Free Colorado, along with the Colorado Health Foundation, LiveWell Colorado, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the School Nutrition Association and other organizations have been urging members and supporters to write and call members of the Colorado delegation to keep up the pressure for action.

“Most of the organizations have been doing blasts out on their listservs to constituents around the state,” Underhill said. “Now that the House bill has passed, you can expect to see that spike up again.”

Kay Bengston, formerly the domestic policy officer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America until her retirement in 2005, has been phoning and calling as a private citizen these days.

First Lady Michelle Obama made her first comment on pending legislation when she urged lawmakers to pass the school meal bills.

“I do it because I have a commitment,” she said. “Hunger is one of the most critical human needs. And members of Congress want to hear from their constituency. Sometimes they just count the calls and record the number of yeses and nos. That tells them something, and every call means something.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, an outspoken proponent of healthier school lunches and crusader against childhood obesity, has added her voice in support, issuing a statement earlier this month urging the House and Senate to bring the bills to the floor and pass them without delay.

It marked the first time the First Lady has commented on pending legislation.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, serves on the House committee that passed the legislation, which included several provisions that he sponsored. Polis is optimistic about the chances for passage before the end of this legislative session.

“The chances of child nutrition reauthorization are very strong because there is widespread, bipartisan recognition that we cannot afford to further delay taking action on the interrelated problems of childhood hunger and obesity,” he said in an email to Education News Colorado.

He noted that the House legislation received the support of three of the committee’s 18 Republican members — which is what passes for bipartisan support in today’s political atmosphere.

“As in all legislative business, nothing is guaranteed and in the case of child nutrition, time is of the essence as the programs expire at the end of September,” Polis said. “With a shrinking legislative calendar during an election year, we need to act fast and I urge swift and decisive action as soon as we get back from the recess.”

Polis admitted that the cost of the House legislation is an issue. Unlike the $4.5 billion Senate version, which Senate committee members “paid for” by identifying available funding sources and offsets, the House has identified only $1 billion in offsets.

Quotable

“No one is opposed. The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority.”
Kathy Underhill, Hunger Free Colorado

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, has vowed to identify the needed additional funding sources before the bill comes to a floor vote in the house. “I am confident that we will be able to find them,” Polis said.

Both the Senate and House bills authorize a number of changes to the nation’s school lunch program. Those changes fall into three categories: reducing childhood hunger, improving nutrition and addressing childhood obesity, and improving the efficiency and integrity of the programs.

In the first category, reducing childhood hunger, both bills seek to eliminate red tape and make sure children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches are automatically enrolled in the program. Both would expand after-school snack programs as well.

In essence, they would turn “snacks” into full meals, meaning that some children would be provided with three nutritious meals a day at their school.

“If the after-school or supper program expanded to Colorado, that would be huge for our kids to be able to get that third meal,” Underhill said.

Both bills also would increase the reimbursement rate for school lunch for the first time in 30 years.

While both bills would expand access to free and reduced-price meals, they differ in the size of that expansion. The House version would allow school districts to automatically provide free meals to students who are enrolled in Medicaid programs. That would mean almost 1 million low-income children would begin automatically receiving free meals for the first time without having to fill out any additional paperwork.

The Senate bill would provide free meals to only about 115,000 new children.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, successfully amended the House nutrition bill and is urging its passage.

Likewise, the Senate bill requires the establishment of nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools during the regular school days. The House bill expands that requirement to include any foods sold in schools at any time, even after the end of the regular school day.

The House bill also includes a substantial investment – ½ cent per lunch served – in nutrition education and promotion activities in the school districts. That provision came at Polis’ insistence.

Polis also successfully amended the House bill to include a two-year Healthy School Meals pilot program, which would provide incentives for schools to offer vegetarian options and remove restrictions on non-dairy milk alternatives.

Finally, Polis succeeded in amending the House bill to include the establishment of professional standards for local food service directors, including minimum education, certification and training requirements.

It’s difficult to say just what the impact of the legislation would be on Colorado schools, Underhill said.

“No one has mapped that out because the versions are so different,” she said. “But every piece of it is critical. There’s no piece of the legislation that would not directly impact Colorado.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.