Friday, August 06, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Good food for kids

It was one small blip on the national news, one giant blip in the career of Blanche Lincoln — or maybe not. It was the Senate’s passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the chief sponsor of which was Sen. Lincoln, who is in a steeply uphill climb for re-election.

The act reauthorizes federal child-nutrition programs, which otherwise would expire in 50 days. But it does a lot more than that. It generously expands funding for the nutrition programs for the first time in 30 years, cuts red tape so that more families and schools can participate and seeks to create healthier nutrition choices for youngsters in school, after-school and summer programs. And it will add nothing to the national debt.

The Hunger-Free Kids Act will not re-elect Sen. Lincoln — she has more grievous problems to overcome — but it helps just a little to erase her image of dithering and indecision. It also is not a bill that particularly helps the rich and powerful, like repealing taxes on rich estates, cutting taxes for the wealthy or unrestricted agricultural subsidies, the kind of issues where she has shown leadership in the past.

It also is not the kind of issue where you will ever see Rep. John Boozman leading, if he becomes the next senator. But surely Boozman will vote for the bill when the House of Representatives takes it up after the August recess. Even far-right Republicans in the Senate went along with the unanimous-consent motion that assured passage of this big federal spending bill (it raises spending by $4.5 billion over 10 years).

Sen. Lincoln had been beseeching leaders on Capitol Hill to squeeze the bill on to the Senate’s and House’s crowded calendars before the election-year recess. She appealed to people in Arkansas to write and call congressional leaders about it and she got some unusual help this week. First Lady Michelle Obama wrote an op-ed article for the Washington Post on Monday urging the Senate to pass the bill. She wants school-lunch programs reformed so that they deter childhood obesity. Tuesday, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a senior Republican, published a piece in The New York Times expressing the urgency of the Senate’s taking up the bill. Lugar went out of his way to praise Lincoln, doubtlessly upsetting the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has made regular attacks on Lincoln’s spending record.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the right-wing Republican from Georgia and the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee, of which she is chair, joined Lincoln on the bill. More than most Democratic senators, Lincoln works with Republicans on legislation. She and Senator John Kyl of Arizona are sponsoring a bill that would see that the heirs of very rich men do not have to pay many taxes on their inheritances when the estate tax returns next year.

The Blanche Lincoln we like is the one who put together and passed the children’s nutrition bill. It mandates that the U. S. Agriculture Department develop nutrition standards for all foods that are sold in schools, including vending machines and junk-food shops and not just the cafeteria. It allocates $1.2 billion to increase the number of school children receiving food aid, seeks to improve the nutrition in school lunchrooms by including an extra 6 cents per meal for schools that meet stricter nutrition standards and expands access to supplemental nutrition and information on healthy food for pregnant women, infants and children.

That may sound like the government is becoming too much a nanny, but consider that it has been proven that nutrition is a big key to learning and achievement among poor children and that 27 percent of people between the ages of 17 and 24 now weigh too much to enlist in any of the armed services, according to a study by a group of retired generals and admirals. It is a national-security issue. It is a big reason for exploding health-care costs, so it is a critical economic issue.

Nowhere is the problem worse than in Arkansas, which has among the highest incidences of obese children (more than one in three) in the country, along with high infant and child death rates, high incidence of low-birthweight babies and low school achievement. Senator Lincoln likes to say that she votes for Arkansas interests. This time it can be a sincere boast.