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School Lunches Should Be State Responsibility, Official Says

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Washington--If it were up to him to decide, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block told a Congressional committee last week, he would turn the 35-year-old National School Lunch Program "back to the states."

But the Secretary, who testified before the House Education and Labor Committee on the fiscal 1983 budget for the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, also said that, for the time being, the school-lunch program and the federal food-stamp program--both administered by the Agriculture Department--were the two programs on which the federal government would focus its efforts in the area of nutrition.

"By concentrating on the two basic programs, we'll be able to get the job done," Mr. Block told the committee members. It is "more appropriate" that the states administer the smaller nutrition programs, such as the women, infants and children supplemental nutrition program, if they desire to continue them, Mr. Block said.

Participation in the school-lunch program, however, has dropped significantly since federal budget cuts forced many school districts to raise prices, Agriculture Department officials testified.

According to the most recent, still-preliminary department statistics, they said, participation dropped by 3.4 million students between December 1980 and December 1981--from 26.7 million to 23.3 million.

Schools Dropped Out

As of October 1981, according to the most recent statistics available, 1,700 schools had dropped out of the federally funded program, according to their testimony.

Of these, they reported, 1,000 are private schools, many of which can no longer participate since their tuition exceeds $1,500 per student. The ceiling was imposed in the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981. Two hundred of the 1,700 are residential childcare centers. The remaining 500 are public schools.

Participation in the school breakfast program has also dropped since the budget cuts forced many schools to raise prices, the officials said. As of November 1981, 3.5 million children were served by the program--a drop of about 10 percent from the previous year. Mr. Block suggested, however, that the decline in partici-pation in the school-lunch program might also be linked with students' fondness for fast-food lunches. "To tell you the truth, I think there are more children who want to eat at McDonald's," Mr. Block told the committee members.

But Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, responded, "I think it has more to do with budget cuts than with the popularity of Big Macs."

Federal funding for fiscal 1983 for the school-lunch program will remain constant at the fiscal 1982 level of $2.3 billion, Mr. Block said.

State Control Questioned

The prospect of turning the school-lunch program, as well as other federal nutrition programs, over to the states, raised doubts among several committee members. Carl D. Perkins, committee chairman and Democrat of Kentucky, expressed concern over the proposed Administration plan under which the states would maintain the school-lunch program using funds from a federal trust fund until 1991, when the responsibility would be handed to the states.

The proposal represents a failure of "federal concern," the Representa-tive charged. Mr. Block replied that in his view that is not the case.

Others, however, raised questions about the states' ability to pick up the often-costly nutrition programs. Inquiry Made

William R. Ratchford, Democrat of Connecticut, inquired of the Secretary which states would fund the program, and what the federal government would do if the states chose not to continue it.

"I don't know. I guess I haven't crossed that bridge at this point in time," Mr. Block responded, adding that he "can't imagine they'd opt for that."

However, no state government has yet appropriated supplementary funds to cover the federal budget cuts already enacted for the school-lunch program, an Agriculture official accompanying Mr. Block said.

"Has there been any discussion between you and Secretary Bell about the effects of these cuts on education?" Rep. Ratchford asked. "Secretary Bell and I have talked," Mr. Block responded. "He concurs with the plan as I concur with the [Administration] plan."--S.W.

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