Senate approves major expansion of school lunch programs

The Senate approved a sweeping boost to school nutrition programs Thursday, adding $4.5 billion to bring more meals and healthier nutrition standards to low-income children nationwide.

The legislation, approved without a vote under a bipartisan strategy that sponsors hoped could be swiftly replicated in the House, was designed to give added help to jobless and low-income parents at a time when the economy continues to lag and a new school year is about to start.

The bill would continue existing school nutrition programs that expire at the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30, while providing them with their first increase in the costs of providing meals since 1973. The $4.5 billion would enable school cafeterias to overhaul their menus and provide updated, healthier choices, supporters said.

The package would also allow schools to expand their after-school snack service into a full meal program. And it would establish new nutritional standards on all food offered on campuses — including items in vending machines.

“At a time when families are scrimping and saving to make their own budgets work, I can’t think of a better message to send than to pass a fully-paid-for bill that will help their children live longer, healthier, more productive lives,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made childhood nutrition a signature issue, called the bill “a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will help us provide healthier school meals to children across America and will play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity.”

The House has recessed for the summer, but supporters are pushing legislators to take up the issue when they return next week to vote on an aid package for states.

The cost of the bill is fully covered by other budget offsets, but Democrats are reluctant to engage in additional spending as the fall elections approach.