Reporting from Washington — The first legislation in 30 years to significantly increase the number of needy children who can receive subsidized meals at school was on its way to President Obama — one of the last victories likely to be scored by the Democrats' soon-to-vanish majority in the House.
The $4.5-billion bill was approved 264 to 157 on Thursday, with 17 Republicans joining in support. Obama was expected to move quickly to sign the measure into law.
The measure, which boosts more nutritious meals for children in low-income families and provides a subsidized outlet for surplus farm products, has long commanded bipartisan support. The Senate approved it unanimously in August.
The bill will make another 115,000 children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and provide an additional 29 million meals a year at after-school programs. The bill will also increase the federal reimbursement for schools by 6 cents per meal, the first increase in 30 years aside from inflation adjustments.
First Lady Michelle Obama, whose "Let's Move" campaign seeks to fight child obesity, called the bill a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the legislation will "give more students access to the nutritional food they need to help them learn."
Under the law, schools will be required to apply nutrition standards to school breakfasts, lunches and snacks while eliminating junk food sold a la carte or in vending machines. It also includes provisions to encourage the use of produce grown in local farms and in school gardens.
"With this vote, today we make a commitment to the neediest children in our country," said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
More than 16 million children live in households that struggle to put food on the table, Miller said. Children consume nearly half of their daily calories while at school.
"It's a shame that the majority of Republicans put politics ahead of our children's health and voted against this bill," Miller said. "They are standing on the wrong side of history. I hope it doesn't foreshadow what is in store in the next Congress."
Republicans criticized the bill as too costly and pegged it as the latest example of government overreach.
"This isn't a debate about healthy and affordable school meals. It is a debate about the proper role of the federal government and the unsustainable level of government spending," Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) said.
House Democrats had pulled the bill off the floor Wednesday after Republicans pushed to add a provision requiring background checks for child-care workers. That move drew additional fire from the GOP.
"The procedural antics today prove unequivocally that Democrats will do anything and everything not to listen," Kline said.
Times staff writer Mary MacVean in Los Angeles contributed to this story.