School nutrition bill could be revived in Congress

First lady Michelle Obama's campaign for healthier school lunches could be revived in Congress after two key Democrats said they will drop opposition to using funding from food stamps to pay for it.

Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts have said they will support House passage of a $4.5 billion child nutrition bill that passed the Senate earlier this year. Backed by some anti-hunger groups, the two lawmakers led opposition to passage of that version before the election because it is partially paid for with $2.2 billion taken from future funding for food stamp programs.

Since then, a push from the White House, which promised to help restore the food-stamp money, and political reality after the midterm elections — the bill would probably not fare as well when Republicans take over the House in January — appear to have softened opposition.

DeLauro said Tuesday that she is willing to support the legislation, which would improve lunches in schools and expand feeding programs for low-income students, with the food stamp cuts because Democrats will have a better opportunity when Congress returns to use another piece of legislation to try to restore the money and increase access to feeding programs for hungry kids.

"The view was that before the election, we couldn't get (those) two pieces we wanted to get," she said.

A spokesman for McGovern, Michael Mershon, said he was willing to support the bill because he had gotten "sufficient assurance" from the White House that it will work to restore the food stamp cuts.

Rep. George Miller of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he hopes to see the legislation passed in the coming weeks but added that the Obama administration must keep its promise to restore the funding.

"The White House must also deliver on its promise of additional commitments to prevent cuts to the food stamps programs in this tough economy," Miller said in a statement.

If House Democrats are able to pass the Senate version of the bill, it would go straight to President Barack Obama for his signature. It could be a small victory for the party after widespread defeat in last week's elections.

It is unclear how long the lame-duck legislative session to end the two-year Congress will last when lawmakers return to the Capitol next week. If Democrats are not able to move the bill to the president's desk, supporters will have to start over in the new Congress. Though some Republicans support the bill, many have objected to its cost.

The first lady has lobbied aggressively for new school lunch standards as part of her "Let's Move" campaign to combat childhood obesity. The standards, which would be decided by the Agriculture Department, would not remove popular foods like hamburgers from schools but would make them healthier, using leaner meat or whole wheat buns, for example. Vending machines could be stocked with less candy and fewer high-calorie drinks.

Creation of new standards, which public health advocates have sought for years, has unprecedented support from many of the nation's largest food and beverage companies. The two sides came together on the issue as public pressure to remove junk foods from schools increased.

"I think it seems like now the bill is ready to pass," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has been working on the issue for a decade. "If the House fails to pass child nutrition, it would derail 10 years of work to finally get sugary drinks and junk foods out of school vending machines."

Some hunger groups have signed on to passage of the Senate version despite the cuts.

Billy Shore, founder and executive director of the hunger group Share Our Strength, said the chances of the bill's passage with DeLauro and McGovern's support are "much, much better now."

"Now that we are at the end game ... we think it's time to get behind this bill," he said.

Monica Mills, of anti-hunger group Bread for the World, said her group has also signed on because "all in all, it's a step forward."