Washington - Senate lawmakers moved Wednesday to make school lunches more healthful by cutting farm conservation programs, while leaving intact the crop subsidies that many experts say contribute to the high fat and starchy diets behind the obesity epidemic.
A costly remake of the $17 billion school lunch program, which feeds 32 million children a day, is under way in Congress in tandem with first lady Michelle Obama's high-profile campaign to end childhood obesity.
There is widespread agreement in both parties that corn chips with cheese sauce, fried chicken nuggets and other staples of the school lunch menu have to go. Obesity has risen dramatically in children, and the cost of treating the conditions linked to being overweight have reached nearly $150 billion a year, or 50 percent more than the cost of the new health care law.
In addition, Mars Candy, Coca-Cola and other food manufacturers have agreed with the American Academy of Pediatrics and other public health advocates to national standards that could ban junk foods sold in vending machines and other school locations outside the lunch and breakfast programs.
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a $4.5 billion increase for school nutrition over the next decade, with broad bipartisan support. That is less than half the $10 billion that the White House wants. The problem for Congress is that new pay-as-you-go budget rules require cutting other spending or raising taxes to offset the cost.
To pay for the increase, the committee targeted for cuts a farm conservation program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, that goes to farmers of all crops, many of them small. Left untouched were the much larger crop subsidies that go to big corn and other grain and cotton growers.
Environmental advocates contend there is more than enough money available for school nutrition if lawmakers would be willing to trim those payments. Many public health advocates fought a losing battle against the crop subsidies in the 2008 farm bill, arguing that they make the corn and corn sweeteners that are the basis of many packaged foods artificially cheap in relation to fruits, vegetables and other more nutritious foods.
"Pitting kids against clean water instead of looking for savings in the much, much larger crop insurance and farm subsidy accounts is just wrong," said Craig Cox, an official with Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. "It's more than wrong, because it also reduces the increase in child nutrition funding that could otherwise be achieved."
Among other things, the conservation program helps farmers create grass buffers to prevent runoff of fertilizers, chemicals and sediment from their fields into streams; reduce air pollution from wind erosion of soils; and create habitat for wildlife.
The program is vastly oversubscribed and popular in California and other states. It is especially popular with ranchers and specialty-crop farmers who are ineligible for grain subsidies.
Grain subsidies have long been heavily skewed to large producers and have contributed to the rapid consolidation of farming. The federal government last year paid $4.8 billion in these direct payments, more than it spent on all farm conservation programs, according to Environmental Working Group.
The largest 10 percent of farmers received 58 percent of the money. These payments go automatically to farmers based on their history of growing subsidized crops. In addition, the federal government spent $5.1 billion on crop insurance.
Democrats and Republicans on the Agriculture Committee made clear they have no intention of shaving crop subsidies.
Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who is a staunch supporter of rice payments, said funding for the environmental program will rise, just not as much as the 2008 farm bill mandated. She said she planned to strike a balance between the environment and nutrition.
Committee Republicans opposed the cuts to the environmental program and instead recommended cutting a different conservation program that offers "green payments" to farmers.
A Bay Area Democrat, Rep. George Miller of Martinez, is working on a House version of the child nutrition bill and has not yet identified where he will find money to pay for increases in funding.