Image: Michelle Obama
Sergio Torres  /  AP
First lady Michelle Obama praised the bill shortly after it was passed, calling it a "groundbreaking piece of legislation that will help us provide healthier school meals to children across America."
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updated 8/5/2010 6:36:41 PM ET 2010-08-05T22:36:41

Pizzas and hamburgers in the school lunch line would be healthier under child nutrition legislation passed by the Senate Thursday, a key part of first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood obesity.

The $4.5 billion legislation passed by voice vote would create new standards for all foods in schools, including vending machine items, to give students healthier meal options. It would also expand the number of low-income children eligible for free or reduced cost meals.

The legislation had stalled since Senate committee passage in March, but it gained new attention as the White House became involved this week. President Barack Obama on Thursday called Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who had concerns about the cost of the bill and had threatened to object to it, to assure him the legislation was paid for. The bill has been a top priority for Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who is in a tough re-election race this year.

First lady Michelle Obama praised the bill shortly after it was passed, calling it a "groundbreaking piece of legislation that will help us provide healthier school meals to children across America" that "will play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity."

A similar bill is pending in the House after committee approval last month.

The new nutrition standards would not remove popular foods like pizzas from schools completely, but would make them healthier, using whole-wheat crust or low-fat mozzarella, for example. Vending machines could be stocked with less candy and fewer high-calorie sodas.

Creation of new standards, which public health advocates have sought for a decade, has unprecedented support from many of the nation's largest food and beverage companies. The two sides came together on the issue as a heightened interest in nutrition made it more difficult for the companies to push junk foods in schools.

Congressional passage of the bill would be only the first step. Decisions on what kinds of foods will be sold — and what ingredients may be limited — would be left up to the Agriculture Department.

Part of the deal to move the legislation this week was to change the way it was paid for. While the committee bill partially paid for the legislation by reducing conservation subsidies paid to farmers for using environmentally friendly farming practices, the Senate-passed bill took $2.2 billion out of future funding for food stamp programs instead after some farm-state senators objected to using the subsidy money.

Hunger advocates who had previously supported the bill said they would now oppose it.

"If the only way they can pay for anything is to cut food stamp benefits, then the nation is in worse shape than we thought," Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said after the vote Thursday.

Lincoln said Democrats used the money for child nutrition because lawmakers had been eyeing that pot of money for other priorities as well. Food stamp money was also used to pay for a jobs bill the Senate passed Thursday.

"I think it's most appropriate if these dollars are going to be spent, that they are spent on nutrition for kids," she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: First lady’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign begins

  1. Closed captioning of: First lady’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign begins

    >>> michelle obama bringing obesity campaign to missouri. she spoke to delegates moments ago.

    >> we're decades beyond slavery when one of the greatest risks to our children's future is their own health. if we don't do something to reverse this trend right now, our kids won't be in any shape to continue the work begun by the founders of this great organization. [ applause ]

    >> let's bring in msnbc's chief washington correspondent norah o'donnell. this is really a challenge that she's making to her own community, to the naacp saying that this is basic to the success of african-americans and minorities.

    >> absolutely. i thought this was a very tough message from the first lady to get healthy and to get moving as part of her lets move initiative to fight the epidemic of childhood obesity . decades beyond slavery that the greatest threat is our health. she said that african-american children are far more likely to be obese than white kids. she also said that nearly half of black children will eventually develop diabetes. that stunned me. i didn't know that. mrs. obama also said that kids are not going to be in any shape to continue the work the naacp did if getting blacks into congress and the supreme court and she also said that we need to take this issue seriously as seriously as improving underachieving schools, as seriously as eliminating youth violence or stopping the spread of hiv/aids. she really delivered a message that this is something that has to be done. she got a rousing applause when she ended her speech saying will you move with me? will you move with me? and so she got a great deal of applause. she has a web chat tomorrow and then on wednesday serena williams , the wimbledon will be at the white house . mrs. obama has played tennis. it's something. this is a busy week for her. she's going the gulf later.

    >> first trip to the gulf since the disaster but historically not only have minority kids had worse nutrition, they haven't had better nutrition that many peers have but as we see more and more with cutbacks with budget cuts, they don't have recreation facilities. not only in their neighborhoods but schools and they certainly don't have access to the high grade recreation and various other athletic events that middle class and upper middle class kids have.

    >> it's a great point. she mentioned that. she said when she was growing up that there was recess twice a day. we went to school in our communities. she said. so a lot of us used to bike and walk to school. she said even in chicago with no shoes on joking with the crowd but really said and also my parents would never let me lounge around on the couch watching tv . we didn't have as many cable channels back then. she said that my mother put whatever she wanted on the plate and we had to eat it. we couldn't complain. she tapped into her own personal upbringing and delivered that to the community but she also talked about food deserts which large number of this community, more than 6 million children in this country leave in food deserts where there is no access to supermarkets. that's one of her pillars of her let move initiative is so get more good, healthy access to food especially for the african-american community.

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