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Congress Quietly Approves Bill on School-Lunch Food

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Washington--The Congress has given final approval to legislation designed to improve the freshness and usefulness of food distributed through the school-lunch program.

Education lobbyists have generally hailed the measure, adopted last month without a formal House-Senate conference.

Districts "will start to see an improvement" in the program after the current school year, predicted Bruce Hunter, associate director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"They will have more latitude over what they get and more say over the quantity in which it arrives," Mr. Hunter said. "There will be a lot more thought given to the style and size of the stuff that is delivered and to the timing."

Mary Klatko, chairman of the American School Food Service Association's legislative committee, said schools can look forward to advance notice of deliveries, the end of late-spring arrivals necessitating summer storage, and improved communication with the Agriculture Department.

Under the measure, districts will be required, "whenever possible," to purchase only American-produced food for their lunch and breakfast programs, although the Secretary of Agriculture will have broad authority to issue waivers.

House and Senate sponsors agreed without a formal conference to a final version of the legislation that is similar to the much stronger House bill, which mandated improvements, rather than merely urging changes "as feasible," and contained other requirements the Senate bill did not. (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 1987.)

Many of the House bill's strict deadlines were relaxed, however, and language was inserted to give the Agriculture Department leeway under certain circumstances.

Despite those qualifications, Mr. Hunter, who led a coalition of education and food-industry organizations in lobbying for the House bill, had nothing but praise for the final version.

"I think [phasing in the improvements] will be done in a timely way," he said. "There's no reason to assume that the Department of Agriculture and the commodity producers don't feel it's in their best interest to have their clients in school districts happy with what they're doing."

U.S.D.A.'s Reservations

Tom Sullivan, director of analysis and evaluation for the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, said u.s.d.a. officials, who supported the Senate bill, were not entirely satisfied with the final version.

"It's better than what we were looking at" in the original House version, Mr. Sullivan said.

But he reiterated the department's argument that requiring it to bow to consumers' demands for certain products and delivery schedules would make it difficult to manage the program and adequately absorb the flow of surplus commodities.

"The department has an overall responsibility to balance objectives ... to maintain orderly markets in the agricultural sector and to provide food assistance domestically," Mr. Sullivan said. "This bill will make that more complex, and does not necessarily achieve the objectives that are set out."

The u.s.d.a. is pleased, however, that the final language provides some flexibility absent in the House bill, he said.

For example, although the legislation requires the department to offer items that are most useful to consumers, to offer optional sizes, and to establish delivery schedules meeting consumers' needs, it says the department can do so "taking into account the duties" of the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase surplus commodities.

While the bill requires the department to give recipients 60 days' notice of an impending delivery, it requires only as much notice as possible when perishable fruits and vegetables are involved.

In addition, several senators specified in debate on the measure that they did not intend it to force the department to spend more for commodities.

Mr. Sullivan contended that the legislation was unnecessary, because many of the complaints that spurred it "were well on their way to being resolved." He cited the American School Food Service Association's praise of the department's efforts and the organization's support of the less-stringent Senate bill.

Ms. Klatko said that although the a.s.f.s.a. had supported the more flexible version, she was "delighted" to see a commodity bill pass.

She said that the organization "wants to maintain a cooperative relationship" with the Agriculture Department and realized that the more restrictive language "would be a problem for them."

Other Provisions

Among other provisions, the new legislation:

Establishes an advisory council of food producers, distributors, and recipients whose advice the usda must consider in making purchasing decisions;

Mandates that commodities distributed be as consistent as possible with federal dietary guidelines;

Requires the usda to monitor states' distribution of commodities to school districts, to establish mandatory fee schedules for handling and storage charges, and to draw up minimum state performance standards;

Requires states to offer a full range of available commodities to each district, to evaluate their delivery systems, and to consider districts' storage capacity before delivering commodities;

Mandates that districts receive commodities no later than 90 days after placing an order;

Extends through 1990 an experimental program under which 60 school districts receive cash or letters of credit with which to purchase commodities instead of receiving foodstuffs; and

Permits states to spend on administrative costs a portion of any money saved by buying food in volume to distribute through the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. This will allow states to use those savings to add more needy people to the program.

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