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School Lunches Said Healthful

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Washington--Schoolchildren who participate in the National School Lunch Program eat more nutritious lunches than those consumed by their counterparts who do not, according to a new study issued by the Agriculture Department (usda).

Four of the nutrients that program participants consume in greater quantities--vitamins A and B-6, calcium, and magnesium--are frequently deficient in the diets of schoolchildren, the study notes.

The study, called "The National Evaluation of School Nutrition Programs," was conducted by the usda over the last two years. About 7,000 families participated. The latest report is the third and final analysis of the data.

Currently, about 23 million pupils participate in the program, according to the department, a drop of about 12 percent since the 1980-81 school year. Only a slight decline was noted the following year, however, and the department says that participation has stabilized.

Safeguarding Health

The higher nutrient intake was cited by Mary C. Jarratt, assistant secretary of agriculture, to support the report's finding that "the national school-lunch program is effective in safeguarding the health of the nation's schoolchildren by providing nutritious foods."

The nutritional benefits of the school-breakfast program, in which about four million students participate, are less clearcut, according to the agency. "The findings from the study suggest that the principal nutritional benefit of the breakfast program is that it increases the likelihood that children will eat breakfast," the report's summary notes.

That, it continues, can be construed as a benefit since, in general, children who eat breakfast are likely to be better nourished than those who do not. And those who take part in the school-breakfast program have "superior intake" of milk and milk products than those children who eat breakfast elsewhere.

The breakfast program, which usda officials acknowledge has been successfully targeted at low-income families, would be included in a block grant under the Administration's proposed fiscal 1984 budget.

The report's findings indicate that both the meal programs are meeting their legislative mandate as well, part of which involves "increasing the amount or quality of food obtained by participating families," according to a summary of the study.

One measure of this is whether the families use the program to supplement their normal food supply or as a substitute for other food purchases. The study found that the families, in general, "do not reduce their food expenditures when their children receive subsidized meals at school."

The same trend of supplementation rather than substitution emerged for the school-breakfast program, the study found.

The study looked also at the factors that influence participation in school-meal programs. The results show that "the biggest single determinant of school-lunch program participation is meal price," according to the study. "Holding other factors constant, students who pay higher prices participate less frequently," it says.

The results also show that "students whose parents report that the school lunch is less expensive, more convenient, and of higher nutritional value than lunch at home are more likely to be participants," the report notes. This finding, it suggests, indicates that parents' attitudes, as well as their economic status, affect participation.

Other factors found to affect participation include the age and sex of students--younger children and boys participate more. Students who live in rural areas, who cannot eat lunch at home, and who attend schools where faculty and staff eat in the same dining room as students are also more frequent participants, as are those whose parents are less educated.

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