Cabinet Secretaries Support Diverting Food Stamp Money to Expand School Nutrition Programs

By Christopher Neefus | November 17, 2010 | 10:25 AM EST

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (AP photo)

( - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday he supports using stimulus money originally intended for the food stamps program to pay for a bill expanding child nutrition programs in the nation’s schools.

But Vilsack did not tell how the government, which now has a record number of people on food stamps, could replace the missing funds without raising the deficit.

Vilsack appeared with Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the River Terrace Elementary school in Washington, D.C., on Monday to urge the House of Representatives to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (S. 3307), which the Senate unanimously passed earlier this year.

The bill reauthorizes major USDA nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, WIC (nutrition for Women, Infants and Children), and the Summer Food Service programs, and it provides $4.5 billion in additional funding to improve meals and expand access to them. This would be the first funding increase for the federal school nutrition programs in 30 years.

Child nutrition and fighting childhood obesity are pet projects of First Lady Michelle Obama, and she has endorsed the bill.

Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ala.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) forged a bipartisan compromise that allowed the bill to pass the Senate by unanimous consent, where no voice vote is recorded because no one opposes the legislation.

In the House of Representatives, however, many Democrats balked at paying for the school lunch bill by cutting $2.2 billion in stimulus funds for the food stamps program (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). By making those cuts, the stimulus-backed funding increase for the food stamps program would end months earlier than intended, in November 2013.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 106 House Democrats expressed disappointment that the Senate had used “historic increases in the SNAP program” to fund the school lunch bill. They called such a strategy a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Instead, they asked Pelosi to consider a House-authored bill with different cost offsets.

The prospects for House passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act dimmed considerably when Republicans won back a majority in the House in the midterm elections. As a result, balky Democrats may be more inclined to vote for the bill before the current lame duck session ends.

With that in mind, asked whether Vilsack and Duncan supported the House passing the bill with the Senate’s preferred pay-fors, including the cuts in stimulus funding for the food stamps program.

“(S)ecretaries, one of the points of contention on passage of the bill before the midterms was using funding from the Recovery Act that was going toward food stamps, the SNAP program,” CNSNews asked. “Do you guys support passage with that as a pay-for, and then moving forward, how do we restore that funding in a deficit-neutral way?”

Duncan did not offer a response; Vilsack, for his part, said the Obama administration would do everything possible to restore the stimulus funding intended for food stamps, but he did not offer a guess as to how it could be paid for without deficit spending. Instead he stressed the importance of doing something for children in the short term rather than keeping stimulus funding in place that would not effectively be touched for a few more years.

“The president’s made very clear that if Congress chooses that (stimulus funding for food stamps) as an offset, that we will do everything we possibly can to restore it,” Vilsack told “It’s important to point out that offset really doesn’t get triggered until 2013, 2014—somewhere in that neighborhood.”

The top agriculture official also said that a record number of Americans are participating in the food stamps program, and he implied that providing more school meals could reduce the funding necessary to support the increased level of SNAP enrollment.

“It’s also important to point out that as a result of the Recovery Act, as a result of our efforts in terms of outreach, we now have a record number of people participating in SNAP—close to 43 million. That’s a record expansion – 8 million in the past 20 months or so. We’re going to continue to work hard to make sure that every family who needs help gets the help they need and at the same time deal with the challenge of trying to eliminate childhood hunger by 2015,” he said.

“One of the principal strategies for doing that is making sure that we have access to school lunch and school breakfast programs. This act will allow us to expand school breakfast. It will also enable us to improve significantly the participation in the school lunch program….So I think it’s an opportunity to get something today, to benefit 32 million children today, 12 million children who are involved in school breakfasts today,” he said.

Due to a skyrocketing national debt and annual deficits of over $1 trillion, Congress is left with few options for offsetting new government spending. In fact, it already has cut into future SNAP funding once before.

H.R. 1586 provided aid to the states for Medicaid spending and to preserve teaching jobs, which the complaining Democrats actually voted to pass. They explained in their letter to Pelosi that they did so “because of the critical need for immediate action” on those issues, but respectfully asked not to have to cut even deeper into the program for child nutrition.

As Vilsack told, the White House has indicated it will make sure the SNAP funds get replaced, boosting the chance that a key part of Michelle Obama’s signature anti-childhood obesity initiative will become law. Since the midterms, key Democrats such as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a member of the House Budget Committee, have indicated they could vote for the bill in its current form.

Last week, 1,100 advocacy and state organizations wrote a letter in support of the Senate-passed nutrition bill with its current funding methods. They urged Congress to find more funding for food stamps “through other timely legislative or administrative vehicles.”

As for what those vehicles could be, Vilsack said only that the administration would “work very hard to make sure that no one suffers” for lack of food stamps.

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