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Nutritionists Ask Restoration of School-Lunch Funds

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Washington--A panel of nutritionists and public officials last week asked a House subcommittee to restore at least 10 percent--$150 million--of the funds cut from the school-lunch program and other federal child-nutrition programs in the fiscal 1982 budget.

The witnesses also offered a list of suggested increases that they said should be top priority for any changes in funding.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education of the House Education and Labor Committee, the witnesses reiterated the charge that the budget cuts, compounded by high unemployment, have forced families to drop out of programs that were nutritionally important for their children.

The fiscal 1984 appropriation for child-nutrition programs, which has been approved by both houses of the Congress, is $3 billion--the same amount the programs received in fiscal 1983. Because both the House and the Senate have agreed on that figure, it is unlikely that additional funds will be added when the bill is taken up by a conference committee.

The witnesses acknowledged that it was unlikely, even if the Congress did make last-minute additions, that the entire $1.5 billion that was cut in fiscal 1982 will be restored. The changes they recommended, those testifying told the subcommittee, represent "the best combination and use of funds to improve the nutritional status of low-income children given limited dollars," according to Lynn Parker, a nutritionist with the Food Research and Action Center, a public-interest law and nutrition organization.

High on the list of funding priorities, the witnesses said, is an increase in the reimbursement level for reduced-price lunches. In 1980, students paid 10 cents for reduced-price lunches; this year, they pay 40 cents.

Faith Gravenmier, the director of child nutrition for West Virginia, who testified on behalf of the Denver-based American School Food Service Association, said the drop-out rate has been particularly high among students in the reduced-price program.

The higher prices that resulted from the budget cuts, she said, had forced many children out of the program. Because their family income was not low enough to qualify for free lunches, the children were then unable to participate at all.

An informal survey conducted by the food-service association found that cities experienced a 20- to 45-percent drop in participation for reduced-price lunches. In West Virginia, the number of students receiving reduced-price lunches has dropped by 20 percent since the cuts were made, Ms. Gravenmier said.

"The decline in student participation in this category has been drastic, and we should therefore make this provision a priority," she said.

In her testimony, Ms. Parker urged the Congress to lower the cost to students of reduced-price lunches to 25 cents. She also recommended raising the income-eligibility level from 185 percent of the poverty level to 195 percent.

According to estimates based on figures from the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service, about $64 million would be needed to offset the cost of lowering the price of reduced-price meals for students, Ms. Parker said. An additional $20 million would be needed to change the income-eligibility level.

The witnesses also urged the subcommittee members to increase the federal subsidy for the school-breakfast program by 10 cents per breakfast three days each week. Those additional funds would allow schools to improve the nutritional quality of the breakfasts served by adding more protein. A recent analysis of the nutritional quality of the breakfast program found that the meals were deficient with respect to the amount of protein included.

The witnesses also argued strongly in favor of the restoration of one meal and one snack, daily, to the child-care food program. That change would cost about $15 million, Ms. Parker said.

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