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Commodities Measures Seek More Choice, Faster Service

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Washington--Schools could receive fresher and more useful food commodities through the school- lunch program under legislation now pending in the Congress.

The House and Senate each passed bills in August that would require the Agriculture Department to provide the types and forms of commodities most desired by recipient agencies--primarily schools--and to monitor state commodity-delivery systems more closely.

In fiscal 1987, the department distributed 1.7 billion pounds of food worth $1.6 billion through the commodity program; 1.4 billion pounds went to schools for use in subsidized lunches and breakfasts. Almost 90,000 schools participated in the lunch program in 1987; about 37,000 of those served breakfasts.

In floor debate on the House bill, Representative Leon E. Panetta, Democrat of California, said his subcommittee had "heard all too often that the commodities received by recipients were delivered late and packaged in forms which were difficult to use."

"We also heard about cheese that doesn't melt and beef shipments which came so late in the academic year that schools had to store the hamburger over the summer," Mr. Panetta said.

More Restrictions

The House version of HR 1340 would place more rigid restrictions on the Agriculture Department and set tight deadlines for the completion of new regulations and proce4dures. A House-Senate conference committee has not yet begun to iron out differences.

Both bills would extend pilot programs under which 60 school districts have received cash or letters of credit for local purchase of commodities, instead of receiving food directly from the government.

Like the Agriculture Department, the American School Food Service Association supports the Senate bill, which the chairman of its legislative committee, Mary Klatko, said "most closely parallels what we had intended."

"The House bill would put so many constraints on the usda, I don't see how they could possibly function," she said, adding that its deadlines are "unreasonable."

"We want to work with the usda; we don't want to work against them,'' said Ms. Klatko.

But in a letter to the Congress signed by 15 other education, food-industry, and senior-citizens' organizations, the American Association of School Administrators "strongly supports" the House bill.

"Rather than use the terms, 'to the extent practicable' and 'to the extent feasible,' the House bill directs the usda to make the specified improvements within certain time frames," the school administrators' letter states.

Groups signing the letter included: the National School Boards Association, the National Education Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the Association of School Business Officials, International.

The legislation would:

Require the usda to change the types of foods it buys in accordance with the preferences of consumers.

Under the House bill, those choices would be based on field tests, a new survey of recipients and quarterly follow-up surveys, and consultation with a new advisory council. It also requires the department to offer products in optional sizes and forms. Under the Senate bill, preferred products and optional sizes would be provided whenever practicable.

Both bills require that commodities be as consistent with federal dietary guidelines as possible, and both call for the distribution of recommended recipes.

Require the usda to more closely regulate distribution systems.

The House bill would require the department to quickly establish a monitoring system, a national schedule of storage and delivery fees that could be charged to schools, and minimum state performance standards.

It would require state agencies to evaluate their procedures, changeel10lsome delivery methods, consider local preferences and capacities when ordering commodities, and offer a full range of commodities to each school.

The Senate measure would also mandate state performance standards and federal monitoring, but sets no time limit. It calls for guidelines on "reasonable fees."

Require the department to establish a procedure for replacing commodities delivered in unacceptable condition and new regulations for allocating commodities among states.

Require improvements in delivery schedules. The House measure mandates schedules "consistent with the needs" of recipients; the Senate bill just requires scheduling regulations.

In addition, the House bill would ensure that schools have 60 days' notice of commodity distributions and would guarantee delivery of products within 90 days of an order.

The House measure would also require all schools that receive commodities to buy only American-made food under their own purchasing programs; the Senate bill would restrict only schools participating in the alternative program.

Tom Sullivan, director of analysis and evaluation for the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, called the House provisions "rigid and inflexible" and said they "would have an adverse impact on the department's ability to operate the commodity program." The Senate version, he said, would be an improvement over current law.

Mr. Sullivan stressed that the Senate version would build on a cooperative alliance the department has forged with the food-service association, which passed a resolution this summer commending the usda for its efforts to be accommodating. The bill would support changes the food-service community wants, Mr. Sullivan said, while "maintaining a level of flexibility."

House Bill Faulted

In an analysis of the House bill, the usda argued that optional sizes are not always available and that buying only products preferred by schools would conflict with the department's responsibility to buy surplus products and support farm prices.

Schools participating in the experimental cash program, for example, purchased more extensively processed foods than are usually offered through the commodity program, the analysis said. Buying chicken nuggets instead of chicken is more expensive and disposes of less surplus poultry, it said.

The department also maintained that an advisory council and consumer surveys are costly and unnecessary measures in view of improved communications with program participants, and that it is not possible to set flat service fees for widely varying state agencies.

In addition, department officials said that requiring commodity recipients to use only American goods could make it difficult for schools to purchase such items as sugar and bananas, and could cause "trade repercussions."

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