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Collection of Data For Meal Program Is Halted In California

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Sacramento, Calif--California's 1,043 school districts, following a federal-court injunction against the law governing the national school-lunch program, last week stopped collecting the Social Security numbers of adults living in the homes of children who receive free or reduced-price lunches.

The districts were following an order sent to them by the state superintendent of public instruction, Wilson C. Riles.

"Until further notice," Mr. Riles told district officials, "proceed as follows: (1) Social Security numbers shall no longer be collected. However, those numbers that have already been collected shall be retained by your agency; (2) confidentiality of Social Security numbers must be maintained; and (3) no child shall be denied free or reduced-price meals due to lack of Social Security numbers."

Mr. Riles' order came quickly after Judge Raul Ramirez of the federal district court here issued a 15-day temporary restraining order that barred the U.S. Department of Agriculture from directing the California Department of Education to collect the numbers as a condition of eligibility for the subsidized meals.

Judge Ramirez called the federal law passed by Congress last summer ''physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging to children.

"Children," the judge added, "are being used as pawns in a huge chess game between state and federal government."

The ruling by Judge Ramirez is effective through April 30, when a hearing is scheduled on a request by the California Department of Education, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the Rural Legal Assistance Organization for a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The three groups want the law nullified.

An estimated 330,000 children who now receive the subsidized meals, out of a total of 1.2 million children participating in the program, failed to provide the Social Security numbers by April 15, the deadline set by the federal agency.

State in Compliance

Bonnie White, a public-information officer with the Agriculture Department, said the agency filed a motion with the court stating that it would not take action against California during this school year. "The state is now essentially in compliance," she said, "since most of the numbers have been turned in to the districts."

The department, she added, is planning to issue regulations that spell out a system to verify a sample of the Social Security numbers submitted by the children's parents.

Ms. White said the only state to offer significant resistance to the program has been California.

A particular concern over the requirement has been expressed by Hispanic groups in Los Angeles, according to Randy Altenberg, deputy director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's food-services program. He said Hispanic residents fear the numbers might be used to check the immigration status of adults.

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