USDA to oversee school snack food: Senate ag chair

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department would be given the power to regulate all food sold in schools -- including vending machine snacks -- when Congress renews child nutrition programs, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said on Tuesday.

Chairman Tom Harkin said he hopes the committee will start work on legislation to reauthorize school lunch programs in October or November, with a goal to conclude the work by the end of the year.

“I can tell you it won’t be this month,” Harkin told reporters who asked when work would begin. He said precedence must go, for now, to his work on health care reform and on drafting the annual federal spending bills.

Agriculture Committee work on child nutrition will begin with a draft that gives the USDA the authority to oversee all food in schools, so nutrition programs are not “undermined” by junk food in vending machines, Harkin said at a confirmation hearing for the head of the USDA’s nutrition programs.

Earlier this year, Harkin co-sponsored a bill focused on setting nutritional standards for food in school vending machines and stores to combat childhood obesity rates.

Kevin Concannon, the Obama administration’s nominee to run USDA’s food and nutrition programs, told Harkin he wants to work with other federal and state agencies to address health issues caused by poor eating habits.

“It’s a cultural thing. We’ve evolved to this over the past 30 or 40 years, and it’s going to take efforts on a number of fronts,” Concannon said.

Roughly 17 percent of school-age children are obese, triple the rate in 1980 and “an epidemic in the United States,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other chronic illnesses.

At present, USDA oversees the contents of school lunches and bars the sale of foods with minimal nutritional value, such as soda in the lunchroom. It does not control food sold in a la carte lines or school stores.

Concannon, who ran food stamp and public nutrition programs in Iowa, Maine and Oregon during his career, noted he has seen “pushback” from schools that count on revenue from vending machines to pay for student activities.

Concannon also said he wants people who rely on USDA food programs to be able to buy more food from farmers’ markets.

Food stamps, school lunch programs, and other nutritional assistance account for more than $75 billion, or two-thirds of USDA’s annual spending.

One in nine Americans uses food stamps to buy groceries, a record number due to recession and job losses, and more than 30 million children count on USDA-funded school programs for lunch.

The Obama administration, which has a goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015, proposed a $1 billion a year increase in child nutrition programs but has provided few details of how it would spend the money.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Walter Bagley