WASHINGTON, Aug 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved $4.5 billion in additional funds for child nutrition programs over the next 10 years, in a move that backers said was the largest investment in those feeding programs ever.
The measure passed the Senate unanimously as lawmakers hurried to begin a five-week recess.
A House of Representatives committee has approved a bill providing nearly double the amount of money, so the initiative still has several steps to go through in the Democratic-controlled Congress before final passage.
Senate Democrats, mindful of huge federal budget deficits, said the cost of the additional money to help feed poor children and women would be offset by changes to other Department of Agriculture programs.
The vote by the Senate comes as demands for federal nutrition programs have increased significantly following a severe economic recession from which the United States is slowly emerging.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, 17 million households representing 49 million people were "food insecure" at some point during 2009. This is the highest level since 1995, when the first national food survey was conducted.
The legislation is designed to bolster school lunch programs and other government nutrition plans that are set to expire on Sept. 30 unless Congress approves new funding.
The bill also takes steps to address the growing problem of childhood obesity by setting national nutrition standards for all foods dispensed at schools.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln said the bill "will finally put us on a path toward improving the health of the next generation of Americans, providing common-sense solutions to tackling childhood hunger and obesity."
USDA and school systems have come under criticism in recent years for menus that are high in fat and sugar, contributing to overweight children.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Eric Walsh)