WASHINGTON — House Democrats are moving forward on first lady Michelle Obama's vision for healthier school lunches, propelling legislation that calls for tougher standards governing food in school and more meals for hungry children.
A bill approved by the House Education and Labor Committee Thursday would allow the Agriculture Department to create new standards for all food in schools, including vending machine items. The legislation would spend about $8 billion more over 10 years on nutrition programs.
"This important legislation will combat hunger and provide millions of schoolchildren with access to healthier meals, a critical step in the battle against childhood obesity," Mrs. Obama said in a statement after committee passage.
Some Republicans on the committee expressed concern about how the bill would be paid for, but three of them ended up voting for it. The legislation was approved on a 32-13 vote.
California Rep. George Miller, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said improving school lunches now will help reduce health care costs in the long term.
"The cost of childhood obesity to the health of our children and our economy is staggering," he said. "We have to get rid of the junk food, get rid of the endless sugar and empty calories in our schools."
A Senate committee approved similar legislation earlier this year, but the full chamber has not yet considered the bill.
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.
New standards would not remove foods like pizza or hamburgers from schools completely, but would make them healthier. Vending machines could be stocked with less candy and fewer high-calorie sodas.
Congressional passage of the bill would be only the first step. Many of the most difficult decisions, including what kinds of foods will be sold and what ingredients may be limited, will be left up to the Agriculture Department.
The legislation would also expand the number of low-income children eligible for free or reduced cost meals, a step Democrats say would help President Barack Obama reach his goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015.