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Gillibrand child nutrition measures pass Senate, at cost

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WASHINGTON — A bill extending child nutrition programs that passed the Senate on Thursday marked a milestone for Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, who finally saw progress on her provisions for keeping junk food out of schools and boosting school lunches.

But expanding child nutrition programs came at a price — the bill takes a $2.2 billion bite out of food stamps, a program critical to New York's low income families. And that is on top of about $11 billion the Senate took out of food stamps to pay for aid to states, including saving teachers' jobs, this week.

Beginning in 2013, families will see about $59 a month less in food stamp benefits if the bill becomes law as written, anti-hunger groups say. They vowed to oppose the bill and urged the House to pass a version that finds other ways to pay for increases in child nutrition.

Mrs. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who emerged as one of the more outspoken members of the Senate Agriculture Committee drafting the bill, said in a statement that she was disappointed that some of the bill's programs rely on cuts in food stamps and that she would "fight for more common sense changes to the program and secure the investments we need to make sure every child can achieve their full potential."

About 28,000 people in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties received food stamp benefits in 2009, according to state and federal agencies.

Food stamp cuts were a late move to find budget offsets, as Congress faces increasing pressure to pay for new or expanded programs without raising taxes.

The Senate measures trim the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are now formally called, by rolling back a temporary benefit increase from last year's economic stimulus. With the Senate's action, the cutoff date for the food stamps increase has been rolled back to November 2013.

The Food and Research Action Center, an advocacy group for food stamps, called the legislation "a 'child nutrition' bill that will make children hungrier."

"The bill, if enacted, will do far more harm than good," Jim Weill, FRAC president, said in a statement.

About half of SNAP recipients are children, the center reported, and some 87 percent of all recipients have incomes at or below the poverty rate.

The group said the food stamp increases in the stimulus helped fill some of the program's historical shortcomings.

In addition, economists say, food stamps have one of the highest returns in the economic stimulus because the money is spent quickly; the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that each dollar in food stamp spending generates $1.84 in economic activity.

Groups opposed to the cuts are counting on the House to pass its own version without them, then to press for that approach when the House and Senate work out a final bill.

Aside from the food stamp debate, the nutrition measure increases reimbursements to schools for the school lunch program, eliminates junk food from schools enrolled in the federal school lunch program and provides $50 million for farm-to-school programs that bring local produce to schools.

Mrs. Gillibrand played a leading role on each of those measures, as well as authoring a provision to improve notification of schools when food is recalled.

"After failing for many years to take any steps to reduce child obesity, today marks a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step," the senator said in a statement.

She also had pushed, unsuccessfully, to ban trans fats from schools that participate in the school lunch program. Key lawmakers said those decisions should be made at a local levels.

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