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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by a vote of 264 to 157 the afternoon of Dec. 2, clearing the way for the government to increase the availability of fruits and vegetables in schools servicing more than 31 million children.

The $4.5 billion bill, which had already passed the Senate in August, reauthorizes major federal child nutrition programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children, the Child & Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program.

With time running out on the lame-duck session, the House agreed to pass the Senate version of the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, but not after disputes rose about funding of the Senate bill.

The Senate legislation is partially paid for by eliminating a $2.2 billion temporary increase to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, but House Democrats agreed to vote for the bill after securing assurances that the White House would replace the offsets before the SNAP cuts go into effect.

The produce industry joined other groups in praising the House for acting on the bill in the waning days of the lame-duck session. The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.

"This historic legislation is a huge victory for children, their families and schools across America -- and a victory for fruits and vegetables and public health," Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health at the United Fresh Produce Association, said after the House vote. “For the first time in more than 30 years, Congress is increasing the federal reimbursement rate for school lunch by $.06 per meal, specifically making possible the serving of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” she said.

“The programs included in child nutrition reauthorization will improve children's health by making fruits and vegetables more available for our nation's youth by setting nutritional standards for food sold outside school meals and by improving the nutrition of food in schools,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association.

“Once this bill goes into effect, children will receive a consistent message about healthy food choices whether they are eating in the cafeteria, at the a la carte lunch line or grabbing a quick snack from a vending machine,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. “This will have a real impact on the health of our next generation.”

Nutrition advocates Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) praised a provision in S. 3307 that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to propose science-based school nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, including vending machines, snack bars and school stores, within one year after enactment. USDA also is required to update the school nutrition standards after the publication of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“House passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act moves us one step closer to requiring common-sense nutrition standards for the foods and beverages sold in schools,” Sen. Harkin said.

Outgoing Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) said that the bill comes as Americans are facing financial troubles and a rising obesity epidemic. “Because of this bill, an additional 29 million meals a year will be served through after-school programs, touching the lives of millions of Americans who are working hard to make ends meet during tough economic times,” she said.

Sen. Lincoln, who lost her reelection bid Nov. 2, said that the bill sets the first non-inflationary increase in the federal reimbursement rate for school lunch programs since 1973 and takes a step toward addressing the obesity epidemic by establishing national nutrition standards.