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Tighter Requirements Proposed For Federal Lunch Program

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Changes in the national school-lunch program being called for by the Reagan Administration may result in new paperwork requirements for administrators, more stringent application procedures for free or reduced-price meals, and, possibly, less nutritious meals for students.

Nutritionists, food-service administrators, and school officials are debating the merits of the Administration's lowered nutritional standards for the food program, which were spelled out Sept. 4 in the Federal Register.

Meanwhile, administrators in some school systems are reacting with confusion and anger to some government changes affecting record-keeping for the program on the local level and eligibility requirements for participation.

In an effort to cut program costs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (usda)--acting in response to a Congressional mandate that was part of the 1981 budget reconciliation bill--now requires parents who are applying for free or reduced-price meals for their children to submit names and social security numbers of all adults in the household, whether or not they are related to the children.

The new requirement apparently will force school officials, using not-yet-determined procedures, to verify the information for at least a ''representative sample" of applications.

In addition, new eligibility requirements may reduce the number of applicants for free or reduced-price lunches. To qualify for free lunches, a family must have an income of under $10,990; the income ceiling to qualify for reduced-price lunches will now be $15,630.

Previously, income-level requirements stood at $11,520 and $17,560 for free and reduced-price lunches respectively.

The content of school lunches will change, too, if the new nutritional guidelines proposed by the usda go into effect. (usda will accept comments on the changes until Oct. 4.)

Nutrients Would Be Reduced

Overall, the proposed meal patterns would reduce the amounts of some nutrients to one-fourth of the recommended dietary allowances and leave others--protein, niacin, riboflavin, and vitamins A and B-12--at one-third the recommended level. The new guidelines would also reduce the number of "meal patterns" from five to three: pre-school, elementary, and secondary.

Milk requirements for younger children would change also, from eight to six ounces per meal for elementary students, and from six to four ounces for preschool students. Items such as cookies and donuts would become acceptable "bread alternates," and vegetable and fruit concentrates with water added--catsup, for example--could be counted as part of the fruit and vegetable requirement.

Or, as a usda spokesperson said, "When people put down their social security number, they're more inclined to tell the truth. The honor system isn't working."

And by cutting the nutritional requirements, usda officials hope they will encourage schools to waste less food.

As of May 1981 26 million students were participating in the school lunch program. Of this group, 12.4 million received either free or reduced-price lunches. usda officials are not certain how many will drop out when costs increase.

Tempest in a Steam Table

Opinions vary on the merit of both the eligibility requirements and the new nutrition standards. But some nutritionists and educators believe that the changes mark the beginning of the end for the school lunch program.

Others, however, believe that the reduced requirements are one way that the program can survive.

Critics note that school lunches were supposed to be one of seven programs in the Reagan Administration's "social safety net." Now, with the proposed cuts, some observers fear that the National School Lunch Program will become the "National Snack Program."

They point out that usda, when the cuts were requested, should have reduced costs in other areas of the program before lowering nutritional requirements.

Nutrition advocacy groups characterize the proposed nutritional changes as "disastrous."

"It's fine for cutting costs, but it doesn't address the goal of the program," said a spokesman for the Community Nutrition Institute. "They're awful," said Jolene Avant, director of school lunch programs for the Washington-based Children's Foundation.

Hardest on Poor

The nutritional cutbacks could be particularly hard on poor children, according to Edward M. Cooney, staff attorney for the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C. If a child is currently getting 40-50 percent of his or her nutrients from the school lunch program, the child's family probably will not have the economic resources to make up the difference when school lunches are less substantial, he believes.

Critics also point out that the decreased nutritional requirements are accompanied by increased prices, which they fear will further shrink participation in the program. "Parents aren't going to pay more money for less food," said Rebecca Fisher, government relations specialist for the Parent-Teacher Association (pta).

Some Wanted Changes

But food-service directors in several large school districts said that some of the proposed changes reflected suggestions they have been making for some time.

"We've been advocating giving little kids less for years," said Ethel G. Ott, director of school food services for the New Orleans Public Schools. "My opinion is that if it's confined to youngsters who aren't eating everything, okay. I think usda is trying to cut waste. If the intent is to cut everybody's portion and give children a snack, then school lunch is dead."

"I think it's going to eliminate a lot of plate-waste," said Ruth F. Robertson, director of child nutrition services for the Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina.

"It doesn't say that if a student will eat more, you can't give him more. It just says that you don't have to put it on his plate to throw away," Mrs. Robertson said.

Paperwork and Privacy

Opinions are also divided on the new application procedures for free and reduced-price lunches.

Spokesmen for groups representing school principals and administrators are vehemently opposed to them.

The new procedures would further increase administrators' paperwork, they point out, and run counter to the Reagan Administration's promise to reduce the paperwork for the school lunch program.

"We're dismayed," said Ed Keller, deputy executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (naesp). "The rhetoric does not match the reality."

Mr. Keller, a former elementary-school principal, said that neither he nor other officials at the naesp had been aware of the new requirement. "I'd argue about the privacy intrusions, too," Mr. Keller said.

Others argue that the requirement may discourage fraud, but also deserving families.

"Of course it's a deterrent," said Jolene Avant of the Children's Foundation. "You've got some people who are borderline poor. Rather than have everyone down at the school know their social security number and income, they'll either reach in their own pockets, or the child won't get lunch."

No Objections

But in the Wake County Public Schools, Mrs. Robertson said, where they have started using the forms, there have been few if any objections. "It may take longer to process," she commented. "We do get questions, but people will try to be honest."

Several food-service directors pointed out that virtually any government food program demands similar information and verification.

Hearings Planned

The battle-lines will probably become clearer later this month when the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary and Vocational Education holds hearings on the school lunch program.

Meanwhile, many districts will begin using the new nutritional levels on an experimental basis, and new application forms will begin going out to parents.

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