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Lunch Participation Drops by 12%, Group Says

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Washington--Amid indications that the Reagan Administration is planning to propose new changes in the federally supported school-lunch program, the Agriculture Department confirmed last month that 3.2 million children stopped buying lunch at school last year and 2,700 schools stopped serving the subsidized lunches.

Federal budget cuts totaling $1 billion--which prompted schools to raise their prices or to eliminate the program--and regulations that tightened eligibility standards were blamed for the program's dropout rate in a report by the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit lobbying organization here. The report was based on information provided by the federal department and on interviews conducted with officials in 44 states.

Twenty-four states reported a drop of more than 10 percent in the average number of school lunches served last year, the report said.

Low-income Students

The report found that the nutrition of low-income students was most severely affected by the changes, because such students depend on school lunches to supply a large portion of their daily nutritional requirements.

One-third of the students who no longer buy lunch at school come

from low-income families, according to figures compiled by the department.

The center's report, which warned that further changes in the program could prompt even more children to drop out, was released as department sources said the Administration was considering asking the Congress to permit schools to raise the price charged to low-income students for lunch. The current price set by the Congress is 40 cents, but the sources said the Administration has drafted budget documents that propose indexing the price to increases in the cost of food.

The change would affect the approximately 1.5 million children who received reduced-price lunches last year because their family incomes totaled less than 185 percent of the federal "poverty line."

Indexing Proposal

The indexing proposal was said by the sources to be a way of permitting schools to recoup some of the increased costs of serving lunches to students. A department document describing the proposal said it "makes near-poor children bear a fair share of inflation," the sources said.

The proposal, which the sources said had not yet been approved by the Office of Management and Budget, would affect schools during the 1983-84 school year.

The change would come on top of Administration-sponsored budget cuts in the school-lunch and school-breakfast programs that took effect in the 1981-82 school year. The changes were included in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981.

Funds for the lunch program were reduced from $3.5 billion to $2.5 billion, and participation in the program dropped by 12 percent, from 26.8 million to 23.6 million students, according to the department.

In public schools that retained the program, the daily cost to students who paid the full price for lunch increased by an average of 16.3 cents, said the center's report.

Declared Ineligible

The total of 2,700 schools that eliminated the program includes approximately 1,000 private schools, which were declared ineligible by a provision of the 1981 law that prohibits participation by schools that charge annual tuition of more than $1,500.

The same law reduced funding for the breakfast program from $339 million to $326 million, and participation declined by 10 percent, from 3.6 million to 3.2 million students, according to the department's figures.

Twenty-four of the states surveyed by the food-research center reported drops of more than 10 percent in the average number of school breakfasts served to students. Three-fifths of the students who dropped out were from low-income families, the report said.

No budget reductions were made in the programs for the current school year, although the Admini-stration had proposed regulations that would have reduced the cost to schools of serving lunch by permitting them to reduce the amount and variety of food served. The regulations were withdrawn following protests from nutrition and parent groups.

Minimum Guidelines

Because schools were required by previously issued regulations to follow minimum guidelines in serving lunches, but with lower federal subsidies, they responded by dropping the program, by instituting such cost-saving measures as eliminating personnel, or by raising the prices charged to students, the food-research center said.

Students dropped out of the program mainly because of the increased prices, but some students left the program because the 1981 law lowered the income eligibility guidelines, the report said. Students are also expected to drop out of the program in the current school year because of new regulations that require parents who apply for free or reduced-price lunches to fill out forms that require, among other things, the Social Security numbers of each adult in the household.

Compiling Manual

Edward M. Cooney, an attorney for the center, said that because the organization is concerned with maintaining nutritional standards in the lunch and breakfast programs, its staff is compiling a manual designed to instruct local officials in cost-saving measures.

The manual, "Doing More With Less," will contain the results of a conference last summer of 40 "school-lunch experts from industry, consumer groups, and schools," Mr. Cooney said. The center has received foundation support to distribute the manual to every public school district in the country, he said.

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