School Food Reform: It’s About Priorities

April 05, 2010

by Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

We've been hearing the scuttlebutt from DC that there's no more money to
go around for Child
Nutrition reauthorization
, that the six
cents per meal funding increase
that's currently proposed is simply
all that's possible. We're hearing that school food advocates should be
happy with the bill that's now moving
through the Senate
because it includes some good policy changes,
because we should be happy for any funding increase at all in a time
when “there's just no more money” anywhere.

But I don't
completely buy it. Why? Because it's not about money. It's about
priorities. As a nation, we find the money for things that we
prioritize.

First I should point out that, yes, most of the bill
is very good. It gives the USDA the authority to set improved national
nutrition standards for school meals and to regulate the sale of junk
food in schools, allows for universal meals, and even sets up pilot
projects for farm to school programs. But if we want these good changes
to be implemented effectively, we need to be realistic about the fact
that they will cost money. As HSC founding executive director Rochelle
Davis explains in a recent New
York Times article
:

All the new nutritional nutritional
requirements mean nothing if school districts cannot pay for them.
Accepting the small increase in school food financing and calling it a
victory lets Congress off the hook.

So why, then, are we hearing so frequently that this funding is all we
should hope for? The answer lies in the funding structure for the bill.
Current budget rules require “pay as you go” funding, so legislators
need to find money in one program to give it to another. No net
increases are allowed. So where did the funding come from for the
currently proposed increase? The largest sources were conservation
programs. As explained in this San
Francisco Chronicle article
:

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.

Where did legislators choose not to find funding? The article continues:

Left untouched were the much larger crop
subsidies that go to big corn and other grain and cotton growers. . . .
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.This leaves us with a bill that under-funds
child nutrition; the small increase in funding for children's health
comes at the expense of conservation without touching the large and
well-funded crop subsidies.

Does this reflect your priorities? I know it doesn't represent mine.

Now is the time to urge Congress to fund child nutrition in a
way that prioritizes kids' health and our environment: click
here to raise your voice
.