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House Panel Balks at New School Lunch Cuts

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Washington--Three years after the Reagan Administration first proposed cuts in child-nutrition programs, Democratic members of a House panel told an Administration official last week that the Congress remains unwilling to cut those programs because to do so would jeopardize the nutritional status of low-income children.

Last year, the House passed a resolution opposing cuts in child-nutrition programs. In this year's budget, however, the Administration has proposed cutting the programs by $313 million, including a $14.8-million cut in the school-lunch program (See Education Week, Feb. 9, 1983).

Also under the fiscal 1984 budget, the responsibility for verifying free and reduced-price lunch applications would shift from school officials to administrators of the federal food-stamp program.

But at last week's budget hearing of the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education of the House Education and Labor Committee, Democratic panel members said they opposed both the cuts and the shift in responsibility for verification.

Mary C. Jarratt, assistant secre-tary for food and consumer services for the Agriculture Department, described to the committee the Administration's budget proposal for child-nutrition programs and the rationale for the proposed changes.

The major change--and the one of which panel members were most critical--involves creating a "general nutrition assistance grant," which would combine existing categorical programs for the school-breakfast, summer feeding, and child-care feeding programs. Under that proposal, the federal government would provide $535 million in fiscal 1984, 85 percent of the current funding level.

'Simplify Administration'

The intent of the consolidation of funds into a state-administered block grant, Ms. Jarratt told the subcommittee members, is to "simplify program administration for state agencies."

"The result will be enhanced administrative efficiencies, through the reduction of program complexity, and programs tailored by the states to fit the needs of their populations," Ms. Jarratt said.

Ms. Jarratt and other Administration officials maintained that the cuts will result in programs that are better targeted to the needy, and that the changes would eliminate students who should not be participating in the first place. Ms. Jarratt noted that state officials are better able to determine which programs should receive the highest priority in their states.

"We gave serious consideration to proposing major modifications in the current categorical programs to address these and other problems," she said. "However, we did not feel that we at the federal level should dictate child-nutrition priorities to state and local officials."

But subcommittee members argued that the measures would hurt low-income children, because states are likely to cut programs in ways that do not discriminate between eligible and ineligible children. They noted also that, according to a recent report from the General Accounting Office, block grants result in only slight reductions of administrative costs of programs.

Subcommittee members also took issue with the notion that food-stamp offices are best able to verify families' income elibility for nutrition programs--another Administration proposal. The members pointed out that to place responsibility for verifying students' eligibility for school nutrition programs in food-stamp offices would attach a stigma to nutrition programs that might deter families from applying.

Peripheral Function

But Ms. Jarratt countered that the change was prompted in part by complaints from school officials, who said they should not be responsible for a function that is peripheral to education. She told the subcommittee members that the new verification process, which was criticized by members of Congress and others when it was first introduced, has already resulted in the elimination of "fraud and abuse" in the programs.

She cited a preliminary study issued recently by the Agriculture Department indicating that applications for free lunches had dropped by 10 percent, and those for reduced-price lunches had dropped by 15 percent.

But as the study itself notes, panel members pointed out, it is not possible to distinguish between those students who dropped out because they were ineligible, and those for whom the new requirement created a "barrier." The study also notes, they said, that the sample was not statistically significant and that the results could not be viewed as an accurate picture of the school-lunch program nationally.

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