With a House vote likely on the Senate-passed child nutrition bill on Wednesday or Thursday, the Obama administration and nutritionists are intensifying their campaign in favor of the bill while anti-hunger groups continue to oppose using a cut in food stamp benefits as an offset.
A House Democratic aide said, "We are working to have a vote this week," but added that "there are some concerns on our side, so [it] is not a sure thing."
A spokeswoman for House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller said that Miller supports passage of the bill "with additional commitments from the White House." She said Miller had gotten those commitments but did not provide details. Anti-hunger groups have been pushing for a pledge to restore the food stamp cut.
The battle reflects longtime divisions between anti-hunger interests, whose priority is getting more food to poor people, and nutritionists, whose priorities are providing better quality food for children who participate in school meals and fighting obesity.
The bill would reauthorize all the child nutrition programs, which include school meals, the special program for women, infants and children known as WIC and some smaller feeding programs, which are usually authorized on a five-year cycle. They expired a year ago and Congress extended them for one year.
The bill's most important provision would add $4.5 billion to school meals so that more low-income children could get meals and schools could afford to buy more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat meats and dairy products. Another provision would give the Agriculture secretary authority over the types of food sold in vending machines in schools.
The $4.5 billion would come from other USDA programs, including $2.2 billion from the increase in food stamp benefits that was included in the economic stimulus package. The increase is lasting longer than expected because food inflation is low and the bill would reduce benefits in 2013 rather than 2014.
Proponents are pushing for final action on the bill so that President Obama could sign it before the expiration. Anti-hunger advocates led by the Food Research and Action Center are urging the House to wait until the lame duck session and pass a more generous bill with a different offset.
The campaign to act on the bill before the child nutrition programs expire on Thursday is intense. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack urged passage of the bill Monday in appearances on NBC's "Today" show and on MSNBC. The issue will also come up Wednesday morning at a White House event at which Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sebelius will speak, a Vilsack spokesman said.
"There is little that's more important than improving the health and nutrition of our nation's kids, and the Obama administration strongly believes it is critical to pass the child nutrition act this year," Vilsack spokesman Justin DeJong said in an e-mail. "The bill that passed the Senate received unanimous, bipartisan support and we hope the House can take similar action to provide the resources necessary to improve school meals and help combat childhood hunger. We can't let the desire for a perfect bill prevent a good bill from passing."