New bill will fight childhood obesity and hunger at the same time

This Monday, President Barack Obama will sign into law a bill that most democrats are lauding as a way to combat both childhood hunger and address nutrition-based obesity issues, and many republicans have decried as another example of Nanny State interference and out-of-control government spending.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is intended to improve the quality of food sold in school vending machines, a la carte lunch lines, and cafeterias and offer access to healthier, more-nutritious food options for the nearly 17 million children who are currently in "food-insecure" homes, meaning that they often have to skip meals because their families don't have enough food.

"This is a comprehensive and significant investment in nutrition for our nation's youngsters," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press conference on Friday. "It will allow us to combat childhood obesity and address hunger."

The bill, part of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, includes a 6-cents-per-meal reimbursement for schools, which will equal $4.5 billion over the next 10 years and is the first reimbursement increase since the 1980s. According to Tim Cipriano, Executive Director of Food Services for New Haven public schools, "Six cents per meal equates to a lot more money than we currently have now. We can take 6 cents and really make a difference."

But earlier this month, republicans said that the nutrition bill was too costly and a prime example of government overreach. "It's not about making our children healthy and active," Representative John Kline, R-Minn., told The Washington Post. "We all want to see our children healthy and active. This is about spending and the role of government and the size of government-a debate about whether we're listening to our constituents or not." Republicans temporarily blocked the bill by trying to add an amendment to require background checks for childcare workers, but the bill passed the House after 17 republicans crossed party lines to support it.

Recently, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin brought 200 sugar cookies to the Plumstead Christian School in Pennsylvania to protest what she called a "school cookie ban." Before the event, she Tweeted that she intended to make a point about the "beauty of laissez-faire" government and "Nanny state run amok!"

"I look at Pennsylvania and I think of sweets-I think of Hershey. Then I think, how dare they ban sweets from school here," Palin told the crowd at a fundraiser for the private school.

At Friday's press conference, Vilsack confirmed that treat-fueled events like birthday parties and bake sales would not be covered by the legislation, and pointed out that it's possible for treats to be both nutritious and tasty. "It would be interesting for folks to read the bill," he said, referring to Palin's cookie protest. "It doesn't ban cookies. It doesn't ban bake sales. What it does is allow the USDA to establish standards."

"We want to make the healthy choice the easiest and best choice," he said. "When we take out the sugary snacks and the snacks that are very high in calorie and low in nutrition and replace them with nutritious snacks, we know that those snacks will still be purchased by youngsters. It's not going to substantially reduce the use of vending machines or the income from them."

With one in three kids either obese or at risk for becoming obese, the issues are far reaching: Health care costs in the US are skyrocketing, and fewer and fewer kids are fit enough to meet military requirements, Vilsack pointed out, raising concerns that eventually there might not be enough young people to draw from for a voluntary military.

The bill would make it possible for schools to serve more than 20 million additional after-school meals each year to children throughout the country. It would also make it easier for at-risk children to qualify for free or reduced-price meals by using Medicaid and census data to determine eligibility, rather than relying on parents to fill out forms and provide financial data. In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals at school. For many of them, it's their only meal of the day.

"Were not talking about a handful of youngsters," Vilsack said Friday. "We're talking about millions and millions of America's children. And they represent 100 percent of our future."

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