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Controversial Rules Published For School-Lunch Program

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Washington--Some 10 months after Congress tightened eligibility for federally funded free and reduced-price school lunches, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (usda) last week published proposed regulations that would govern the application and verification procedures for these programs.

The new regulations stem from changes in the school-lunch program that were passed as part of the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981. As of 1981, about 26 million children participated in the 35-year- old program.

The proposed regulations, published in the May 25 Federal Register, cover two areas that have already created controversy in some parts of the country: the requirement that school officials verify families' eligibility once they have applied for free or reduced-price lunches and the requirement that the application include the Social Security number of all adults in the household. Both are designed to deter fraud in school-lunch applications, according to usda

In California, Wilson C. Riles, superintendent of public instruction, ordered school officials to stop collecting the Social Security numbers in mid-April. Subsequently, his directive was backed by an injunction from a federal judge. The situation was resolved, at least for this school year, after Mr. Riles conferred with Samuel Cornelius, the federal Food and Nutrition Service administrator, who agreed that the state could halt the collection for the remainder of this school year.

Lawsuit on File

What will happen next year depends on the interpretation of the new proposed regulations, according to an attorney for the California Department of Justice. The education department's lawsuit remains on file, as does a suit filed by a nonprofit legal-aid group on behalf of some California schoolchildren.

Under the proposed verification rule, state agencies would be "required to ensure that for school year 1982-1983, at a minimum, 3 percent or 3,000 (whichever is less) of all applications on file in each School Food Authority by October 15 are verified."

The states, however, are left to decide whether local districts or state officials verify the information on the applications, according to the proposal. State officials would also decide on the process by which the information would be verified.

In developing the proposal, according to usda, agency officials sought to "strike a balance between two competing concerns. First, there are abuses in the current free and reduced-price application system, as documented in audits and reviews, which must be addressed through a viable income-verification system," according to the proposal. "Second, states and local school officials do not have unlimited resources available to perform verification."

As proposed, usda officials believe, the verification rule will "greatly deter underreporting of household income or falsification of household composition," according to the proposal. Before the passage of the 1981 legislation, school officials could verify the information on applications only "for cause," i.e. if they suspected some wrongdoing.

The second proposal, which defines the "additional information" that school officials must require on applications for free and reduced-price lunches, would require that each application include total household income, names of all household members, Social Security numbers of all adult household members, or an indication that the adult has applied for a Social Security number, and the signature of the legal parent or guardian.

If the application lacks any of this information, school officials may declare it incomplete and deny the student a free or reduced-price lunch, under the proposed rule.

Under the Privacy Act of 1974, the application form must indicate that the Social Security numbers may be used to verify the income and household information provided by the family.

Both proposals are now open to public comment, according to usda However, since schools must prepare their application forms over the summer, the proposal that deals with the information required on the forms has a comment period of only 30 days--half the time usually allowed. The verification proposal has a public-comment period of 60 days.

In addition, usda will conduct a pilot study of the verification procedures.

Comments should be sent to: Stanley C. Garnett, Branch Chief, Policy and Program Development Branch, School Programs Division, Food and Nutrition Service, usda, Alexandria, Va. 22302.

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