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Congress Approves Farm Bill

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A new, five-year Farm Bill is on its way to President Obama's desk after the Senate approved it in a 68-32 vote Tuesday. The House passed the bill last week.

The nearly $1 trillion Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013—the result of years of negotiations—addresses a wide swath of agricultural and food programs. Those include programs that are very relevant to school personnel concerned about hungry kids—student nutrition and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. White House staff have indicated the president will sign it.

Changes to SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, were the most contentious points of debate leading to the Farm Bill's passage. Some conservatives voted down previous versions because they felt they didn't cut enough spending from SNAP. Some Democrats opposed the bills for the opposite reason, arguing that any cuts would hurt poor families and, especially, poor children. The final version met somewhere in the middle, as this story from The New York Times summarizes.

"Spending on the food stamp program will be reduced by about $8 billion over the next decade, and will account for about 1 percent of the total spending in the bill. The reduction in spending will affect about 1.7 million people, who will have their benefits reduced by about $90 a month, according to the budget office. The bill's proponents said the measure closed a loophole exploited by 16 states that helped food stamp recipients get more in benefits than they should have.

But antihunger advocates said the cuts would increase the number of people in need of food, even though the bill adds about $205 million to food banks."

School Nutrition

School nutrition folks will be interested in several items included in the Farm Bill, including:

-A limited pilot program that will allow select school districts in at least five states limited flexibility from requirements for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Participating schools will be allowed to experiment with serving dried, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables instead of fresh. Some lawmakers had pushed for a complete elimination fresh-produce requirement in favor of preserved foods, which can be cheaper to obtain and easier to store. But advocates for poor kids said such a move would undermine one of the program's missions, to provide fresh food to children who may not experience it at home. (The pilot program was unsurprisingly applauded by the American Frozen Food Institute.)

-A pilot program to test incorporating pulses (legumes like lentils and chickpeas) into school meals.

-A pilot program to test and document greater flexibility in local produce acquisition for school meal providers.

-$25 million in grants, created through the Food and Agriculture Service Learning Program, to "facilitate a connection between elementary schools and secondary schools and agricultural producers in the local and regional area."

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