Inside the Last-Minute Fight to Pass the Child Nutrition Act

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"It's this opportunity or we lose it," said Representative George Miller, a California Democrat and sponsor of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (PDF), which was introduced in Congress in June of this year. "I'm afraid of this dying in the lame duck days of Congress."

Miller spoke yesterday to 1,300 listeners in a virtual town hall hosted by Feeding America and featuring Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Feeding America CEO Vicki Escarra, and Top Chef's Tom Colicchio. The forum reached out to thousands of party faithful in a last-ditch effort to save Miller's tenuous $4.5-billion bill, which promises more funding for school meal programs and improved nutritional standards. The town hall repeatedly encouraged listeners to call their representatives to push them to vote for the bill.

"How can you possibly educate a child when they go to school on an empty stomach?" Colicchio said. "It shouldn't be a
political issue."

A version of the act passed the Senate months ago, but it has floundered in the House, and Miller predicted that the House is not likely to vote on it until after Thanksgiving. Vilsack pointed out the difficulty of trying to pass the bill quickly under suspension of the rules—a procedure used to pass uncontroversial bills which would require a difficult two-thirds majority. While "not confident" in receiving two thirds, Vilsack remarked, the bill's supporters believe they can pass the bill during the week of November 29, which would, he said, also allow for "healthy debate."

Monday posed a complicated set of challenges for the Democrats, still beleaguered after their midterm election losses. The S. 510 food safety bill remains on the agenda after months of stalling, and yesterday's town hall also coincided with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and the release of the USDA's new report on food security (PDF). The report revealed troubling statistics essentially unchanged from 2008 to 2009: 50 million people suffering from food insecurity, more than 17 million of them children. That's one in six Americans.

Tom Colicchio, known for his restaurant Craft as well as his involvement with Top Chef and Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative against childhood obesity, offered perhaps the most passionate plea for the bill's passage on behalf of these 50 million.

"How can you possibly educate a child when they go to school on an empty stomach?" Colicchio said. "It shouldn't be a political issue ... With the next Congress, cuts are going to be brutal." Colicchio described his mother's work in a school cafeteria in his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He and his siblings always thought she should retire, and only as an adult did Colicchio learn about her worries for the children—that school lunch was all many of them had to eat all day. Vilsack recounted growing up in an orphanage, where although he "didn't have a mother's love," he did receive enough food.


MORE ON SCHOOL FOOD:
Sarah Henry: Berkeley's School Food Study
Marion Nestle: Jamie Oliver and School Lunch
Helene York: Kids Eating Commodities

One obstacle that stands in their way is the possibility that Republicans might add an undesirable amendment to the bill—what Miller called a "poison pill." Miller urged people to redouble their efforts and look past any last-minute additions intended to sabotage the bill's passage. Even concerns from Democrats have come close to sinking the bill: Many Democrats opposed it once they learned it would receive its money from the government's food-stamp program—a move, Colicchio himself said, which is "essentially robbing dinner to pay for lunch." This funding plan still stands. But Miller and Vilsack have tried to reassure supporters that food stamps remain a Democratic priority, a move that has brought many Democrats back on board in the past week.

Yesterday was ultimately a reminder that the bill's advocates want to be heard. The conference call allowed callers to be transferred to members of the House of Representatives, and speakers on the call encouraged listeners to hold events.

Colicchio praised the power of social media in sidestepping the mainstream press. "Tweet me," he told listeners. "I'll retweet it. I have 60,000 followers." Grassroots advocacy is what's needed now, Vilsack emphasized, if there's any hope of the Child Nutrition Act becoming law.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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