Surplus-Food Measure Passed
Washington--The Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a measure to distribute surplus federal food, but it remains unclear how much of that food will wind up in school lunchrooms.
The measure, sponsored by Senator Robert J. Dole, Republican of Kansas, won the panel's support on March 3 only after mandatory requirements for food distribution were removed from it.
The contested provisions of the bill would have required the Agriculture Department to distribute on a permanent basis up to $1 billion worth of surplus food to schools, food banks, soup kitchens, and charitable organizations. It also would have provided up to $52 million to allow states to transport the food to those distribution points.
Agriculture Secretary John R. Block objected to the mandatory parts of the measure, arguing that it left the department almost no leeway in determining how the program should be operated.
Furthermore, the department said that the bill, as originally proposed, would have "disrupted" its system of making "bonus" commodities available for the school-lunch program, according to a spokesman for Senator Dole.
Under current law, the department is required to provide schools with surplus commodities, which now result in an 11-cent subsidy per meal, according to Christina Bolton, an aide to the Senator.
The department, however, provides up to $400 million annually in "bonus" food to the schools for the lunch program above and beyond the regular surplus food subsidy, Ms. Bolton said. The department makes these bonus subsidies available when it has an oversupply of certain commodities and when it is sure that the schools can use and will not waste them, according to Jane Mattern of the department's Food and Nutrition Service. In recent years, much of the bonus food consisted of dairy products, such as cheese, butter, and non-fat dry milk.
Deprived of Discretion
Department officials claimed that the mandatory aspect of the bill would have deprived the department of discretion when it came time to make the bonus food distributions, Ms. Bolton explained.
The version of the bill approved by the committee authorizes Mr. Block to determine when the government has a surplus of food and, if so, how much should be given away. According to Ms. Bolton, the Secretary would take into account current school-lunch bonuses before determining how much surplus food the government has to distribute.
If he decides that there is a surplus, food banks and soup kitchens would be given priority when the food is distributed, she added.
The committee also deleted from Senator Dole's version of the bill a provision that would have earmarked about $52 million for states for the transportation and distribution of the food once it reaches its final destination.
As of late last week, spokesmen for the committee were unable to say when the full Senate would take up the measure. A companion bill is pending in the House Agriculture Committee.--tm