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Study Finds Rise in Number of Free Lunches Served

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Washington--The number of students participating in the National School Lunch Program dropped by about four million between 1979 and 1983, but the number of children who received free lunches was higher in 1983 than in 1979, a new federal report has found.

The report, prepared by the General Accounting Office at the request of Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, analyzed the participation of both students and school districts in the program.

The goal of the analysis was to gather data on the program's operation before and after the passage of the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1980 and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1982.

The data were collected from the U.S. Agriculture Department, the Commerce Department's Census Bureau, and the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Program Variation

The patterns of participation the investigators found reflect the shifts in funding for various components of the program, according to the report. Overall, the budget for the program rose from $2.73 billion in fiscal 1979 to $3.2 billion in fiscal 1983.

But budgets for separate components of the program fluctuated over that period. The budget for full-price lunches, which stood at $730 million in 1979, had dropped to $410 million by 1983.

The budget for reduced-price lunches, funded at $250 million in 1979, reached a low point in 1982 at $210 million, then rose to $220 million in 1983. The budget for free lunches, however, rose from $1.64 billion in 1979 to $2.16 billion in 1983. The free-lunch program, which accounted for 62.6 percent of the program's budget in 1979, accounted for 77.4 percent in 1983.

During the same period, the number of students who purchased full-price lunches dropped significantly, according to the report. In 1979, 15.3 million children received full-price lunches. That number had dropped to 11.2 million by 1983, a change that accounted for most of the overall decline in participation.

The number of students who received reduced-price meals also dropped slightly, from 1.7 million to 1.6 million.

But the number receiving free lunches showed a modest increase, from 10 million to 10.3 million.

The number of schools participating in the school-lunch program also dropped during the four-year period, from 86.7 percent of all schools in the fiscal years 1979 to 1981 to 85.5 percent in the fiscal years 1982 and 1983.

The decline in the percentage of students who had access to the program was greater, however, down from 94.1 percent in fiscal 1979-81 to 81.6 percent in 1982-83.

The report links the decline in schools' participation to several factors, including school closings and consolidation, and a provision in the law that barred high-tuition private schools from participating.

But the report also cites a survey conducted in December 1981 by the usda's Food and Nutrition Service, which found that school officials listed changes in the government's reimbursement rate and students' dropping out of the program as the main reasons they stopped participating.

The report, "Participation in the National School Lunch Program," is available from the U.S. General Accounting Office, Document Handling and Information Services Facility, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20760. The first five copies are free; additional copies are available for $3.25 each.--sw

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