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At state fair, Akin and McCaskill spar on federal spending for school lunches

Missouri’s two U.S. Senate candidates tangled Thursday over whether taxpayers should subsidize school lunches for more than 34 million students across the country.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate, said he opposes federal spending for the National School Lunch Program, which provides cash and surplus food for nearly 650,000 school lunches in Missouri each day.

“Is it something the federal government should do?” Akin said. “I answer it no. … I think the federal government should be out of the education business.”

Akin made the statement outside the 60th annual Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair on the week many students are heading back to the classroom.

The big-tent, early-morning gathering was an opportunity for candidates of both parties to shake hands, distribute literature and profess support for the state’s farmers and ranchers.

Akin’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, quickly attacked Akin’s opposition to the federal school lunch subsidy.

“I support federal school lunches,” she said. “The notion that the federal government should stop using surplus commodities to help public schools feed kids lunch is a nonstarter for me.”

McCaskill was referring to one part of the school lunch program in which the federal government buys surplus food and distributes it to public and private school cafeterias. In fiscal year 2011, the government sent surplus food such as meat, cheese and fruit worth $24.8 million to lunchrooms across Missouri.

This week, the government said it would purchase meat and fish worth $170 million to help farmers stricken by the drought. Some of those chops and filets will find their way into school lunches.

But the far bigger part of the school lunch program — which now includes breakfast and after-school snacks — consists of direct cash payments to school districts for their lunch programs.

Missouri school districts received $179 million in cash payments for the program in 2011, helping to feed more than 646,000 high school and elementary students each day. Of those, roughly 400,000 get their lunches free or at a reduced cost because their family income is low enough to qualify for a price break.

Nationally, the school lunch program costs $11.3 billion. It has had bipartisan support for years, although Republicans have worried about growing costs while Democrats have argued for more taxpayer money to make the lunches healthier.

“When a child’s nutritional needs are met, the child is more attentive in class and has better attendance and fewer disciplinary problems,” the Food Research and Action Center, a lobbying group, has written. “The National School Lunch Program meets the nutritional needs of children by providing a … balanced meal that contains one-third or more of the nutrients they need each day.”

As a member of Congress, Akin has voted against the school lunch program. In 2010, he opposed the reauthorization and expansion of the school lunch program, which began in 1946.

He said Thursday that providing food to students at school should not be a federal responsibility.

“Why not do it at the state level?” he asked. “I’m not against school lunches, but I have a question whether the federal government should be doing as many things as it’s doing, and that would be one to take a look at.”

McCaskill said Akin’s position reflects his opposition to much of what the federal government does, a key argument she has made against the Republican.

“Do I want the federal government to spend less? Yes,” she said. “But I don’t want to turn out the lights and go home on the most important parts of our economy.”

In June, McCaskill voted for a new five-year farm bill that adjusts crop insurance programs and commodity subsidies and pays for the food stamp program. A small portion of the school lunch program is part of that measure.

But the farm bill has stalled in the House. Akin said he wants to separate the farm support part of the bill from the food stamp legislation, with separate votes on each.

Akin, whose district includes much of the St. Louis suburbs, has never voted in favor of a farm bill.

Thursday’s breakfast, hosted by Gov. Jay Nixon, drew more than 1,000 people and included an auction and bluegrass music. Nixon’s GOP opponent in November, Dave Spence, attended the breakfast but did not speak to the audience.