The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

What’s on the Congressional Agenda for 2010?

What’s on the Congressional Agenda for 2010?

In the News

January 24, 2010

It is no surprise that for the past year the Obama Administration and a Democrat controlled Congress have made healthcare reform a top priority. Although leaders have pledged to pass a final healthcare bill this year, nothing is ever certain, and that seems to be the case now. After all, who would have imagined that a little known Republican state senator would win the race to fill the Massachusetts senate seat held by Senator Ted Kennedy? This win for the Republicans could have a significant impact on the Democrats’ ability to accomplish healthcare reform. In addition, the 41st Republican Senator may halt the momentum Democrats generated with other agenda items as well – climate change, jobs, immigration reform, tax reform – to name a few. These are all items that Democrats want to address this year, and at this point, the likelihood is quite uncertain at best. But then there are items that Democrats must address this year, regardless of who is in charge, and one of these very important items is the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, a bill that reauthorizes our federal feeding programs benefiting our nation’s 30 million school children.  

Why is this important? First, this is a large bill with even larger beneficiaries. Feeding programs authorized by this legislation cost our taxpayers approximately $19 billion a year, and with the President’s budget calling for increased funding of approximately $1 billion a year, the cost could be as much as $25 billion a year by 2015. Despite the estimated increased costs, both parties in Congress agree that a new bill must pass before the current one expires this year. In addition, there is overwhelming support to end child hunger in America, and many leaders see this as the vehicle to do just that. Both Agriculture Department Secretary Vilsack and the President have called childhood hunger a “moral outrage” and pledge to end child hunger by 2015. Congressional leaders Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, have pledged to end child hunger, and are both expected to play a significant role in crafting this legislation.  

This is good news for some who benefit, and while that includes our nation’s children, the other benefactors are often times surprising. This one bill gathers the attention of a variety of groups, including fitness and wellness groups such as the American Heart Association and the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, hunger groups like Bread for the World and Food Research and Action Center, and commodity groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the United Fresh Produce Association. Let’s not leave out school nutritionists, PTAs, school boards, soft drink companies and candy bar manufacturers as well. While some groups are focused on improving the nutrition and fitness habits of our children, commodity groups are focused on increasing federal purchases of their particular commodity.  

One group that could become a major beneficiary this time around is the fruit and vegetable industry. This group has joined forces with the nutrition groups to advocate for increased servings of fruit and vegetables in schools. They believe the federal government should require schools to follow the USDA Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation of five to 13 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Their argument for increased servings of fruit and vegetables is further supported by a recently released Institute of Medicine study calling for more fruits and vegetables. In addition, they have persuasive people like First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Vilsack who have also voiced their support as well.

This bill is also so important to health and wellness advocates who view it as a long-term solution to our healthcare crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 30% of our school children are overweight. Consider this with the fact that our children consume nearly 50% of their daily calories in our nation’s schools. Of course, evening meals and after school snacks from fast food chains can contribute to the obesity problem as well. But many argue that schools should be more proactive with educating children about nutrition and wellness and teaching good nutrition habits. They also advocate for increased federal control over “competitive foods.” Competitive foods are those beverages and foods that are offered outside of the traditional federally subsidized meals, such as a la carte lines and vending machines. These advocates believe changes to our current feeding programs will decrease obesity and provide long-term health benefits thus reducing healthcare costs. This could be a major setback for soft drink and candy manufacturers if their products sold in vending machines are banned from school campuses.

Exactly when the House and Senate will begin debate on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act no one is certain. Debate could begin as early as February or March, depending on whether the Democrats are forced to re-evaluate their political agenda for 2010 and push some less controversial issues such as child nutrition to the front. Regardless, improving child nutrition will be important to many, and the debate over the bill will be fun to watch.

In her time with Troutman Sanders Strategies, a full-service government relations and issue management firm, Autumn Veazey has accrued extensive experience advancing clients’ initiatives at the federal level regarding agriculture, nutrition, trade, immigration reform, and food safety.

Most recently, Veazey served for two years as Director of Legislative Affairs and Associate Counsel for the United Fresh Produce Association headquartered in Washington. Her work at United Fresh included negotiations on key specialty crop provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill and securing over $1.3 billion of mandatory federal funding for the produce industry.