House sends $4.5 billion school-lunch bill to Obama
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives passed on Thursday and sent to President Barack Obama a bill that boosts funding for the school lunch program by $4.5 billion through 2020 and bans "junk" food from school buildings.
Backers said it would be the first real increase in reimbursement rates for schools in 30 years and a step toward healthier meals. Obama was expected to sign the bill, which the Senate passed in August.
The House passed the bill 264-157 on a party-line vote. Republicans said it cost too much and that Democrats want to renege on cuts in the food-stamp program for the poor that largely pay for the bill.
"I hope this doesn't foreshadow what is in store in the next Congress," said Democrat George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Republicans will be the majority in the session that opens in January.
When he took office, Obama suggested an increase of $1 billion a year as part of a campaign to end childhood hunger by 2015. Congress postponed work for a year because of funding shortages. In the end, it scaled back a recession-fighting increase in food stamp benefits to pay for the bill.
More than 32 million students eat hot meals each day through the school lunch program and more than 12 million a day eat breakfast through a companion program. Two-thirds of the lunches are free or at reduced price for poor children.
The government underwrites school meals, operated by local schools, and a handful of smaller child nutrition programs at more than $17 billion a year. The bill approved by Congress would increase funding by $450 million annually for a decade.
It would add about 115,000 students to the program by streamlining paperwork and allow universal access at schools in high-poverty areas.
It boosts the per-meal reimbursement by 6 cents, the first noninflationary increase in 30 years, and bans high-calorie sugary and salty "junk" foods. It also would help pay for after-school meals to poor children at child-care centers.
Senators passed the bill unanimously in August. With time short in a post-election session, Democratic leaders in the House decided to accept the Senate version, despite distaste for its offsets -- curbs in food stamps that help poor people buy food.
"The promised pay-for is not there," said Representative John Kline, who led Republican opposition to the bill, because the administration said it would try to restore the food stamp funding.
First Lady Michelle Obama said in a statement the bill "will significantly improve the quality of meals that children receive at school and will play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity."
School nutrition and anti-hunger groups applauded final congressional passage of the bill and said they hoped the food stamps cuts would be reversed. Enrollment in the food stamp program is a record 42.4 million people.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)
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