US Senator seeks junk food ban, school lunch boost

* Senate bill would ban junk food sales in US schools

* Bill boosts nutrition funding $450 million per year

* Obama had sought $1 billion a year increase

* Group says land stewardship cut to pay for meals

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. government would launch an all-out ban on selling junk food at school under a key Senate chairman’s proposal on Wednesday, but funding for school lunch and child nutrition programs would grow by only half as much as the White House proposed.

Senator Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, proposed a $4.5 billion increase over 10 years for school lunches and other nutrition programs. That is less than half of the $1 billion a year suggested by President Barack Obama, who has a goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015.

“This is a place to start. This is more than we’ve ever spent on these programs,” Lincoln said in unveiling her bill. She said she would keep looking for more funds to reach Obama’s request for $1 billion a year.

The government now spends $17 billon a year on child nutrition, chiefly school lunches.

Whole Foods Market Inc WFMI.O and other food providers that want to get into the business of catering to millions of school children are closely watching the bill, the first step by Congress to overhaul the programs. [ID:nN25219205]

The plan would allow the Agriculture Department to set nutrition standards for all food sold at schools -- taking “local policies” into account -- meaning it could ban junk food.

Antihunger and school nutrition groups commended Lincoln and said the bill would provide meals for more poor children, but they could not estimate how many. They said more should be done to expand funding and the scope of nutrition programs.

The Environmental Working Group objected to Lincoln’s plans to offset the funding increase in child nutrition funding partly by limiting spending on a program to control farm pollution.

“It’s another example of protecting farm subsidies by pitting children against (soil) conservation,” said Craig Cox of EWG.

Nearly 32 million children are fed daily through the school lunch program and nearly 11 million pupils are in the school breakfast program. Some 63 percent of the meals are free or available at a low price.

Lincoln said the increase would allow schools to offer free meals to all children in high-poverty areas, to automatically approve free meals for children when their families are approved for federal aid and to expand after-school and summertime meal programs.

The plan would allow USDA to ban junk food throughout a school. High-calorie, salty, sugary and high-fat snacks and soda now can be sold in areas outside of cafeterias.

There is “a lot of common ground” for setting nutritional standards for all foods at school, whether sold in the lunchroom, vending machines or school stores, said Lincoln.

There were signs an agreement was at hand between foodmakers and education groups on the issue. Early this month, however, the National School Boards Association asked Congress to leave nutrition decisions in local hands. (Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio)