School nutrition bill passes Senate

WASHINGTON — Pizzas and hamburgers in the school lunch line would be healthier under child nutrition legislation passed by the Senate on 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 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.

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.