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Child-Nutrition Bills Advance Amid Dietary Concerns

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Washington--The House and the Senate have approved, with only minor modifications, legislation to extend the major federal child-nutrition programs.

The bills, approved this summer, would make slight changes in the school-lunch and school-breakfast programs, which are permanently authorized, and reauthorize several other programs, including those for nutrition education and surplus-commodity distribution. The House bill would extend reauthorization through 1995, the Senate bill through 1993.

Reflecting long-standing concerns about the nutritional value of school meals, both measures would require the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to develop dietary guidelines for distribution to food-service authorities.

Under the House bill, the guidelines would have to be prepared within a year of the bill's enactment and distributed during the subsequent six months. The bill would re4quire that school meals meet the nutritional standards.

The Senate bill, on the other hand, has no set deadline for the guidelines' development, and would require the Agriculture Department to ensure "to the extent practicable" that meals meet the standards.

In a related development, a nutrition-advocacy group said last week that most school food-service personnel surveyed believe that fat should be reduced in school lunches.

The survey by Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a Washington-based group, found that two out of three food administrators believe that the usda's commodity program is a major barrier to removing fat from school meals.

Many of the surplus commodities donated to schools--such as cheese, ground beef, and processed foods--are high in fat.

The group said there is a consensus within the scientific community that children over age 2 should limit their fat intake to about 30 percent of the calories they consume.

The usda disputed that claim in a prepared statement, saying that "there is no scientific consensus on appropriate levels of fat in children's diet."

The department's current dietary guidelines do not contain standards for fat content in school lunches.

The House and Senate bills would create grant programs to help school districts offset the costs of establishing a school-breakfast program. The House bill authorizes $4 million, or $1 million more than the amount earmarked in the Senate bill, for this program in fiscal 1990.

About 3.7 million children are served school breakfasts, compared with about 24 million who participate in the lunch program.

Another provision in both bills would create an institute for food-service management to help schools provide more nutritious meals and to assist in the training of food-service workers.

In addition, both bills would increase the spending level authorized for the Nutrition Education and Training Program, which provides nutritional information to teachers, students, and food-service workers. In the House bill, it would rise from its current $5 million to $25 million by 1993; in the Senate bill it would increase to $20 million by 1992.

The bills would extend the commodity-distribution program, which allows schools to collect part of their reimbursements in the form of agricultural surpluses, and would allow nonprofit groups to receive reimbursements for lunches served to poor children during the summer.

Congressional aides said they expect a final, compromise version of the bill to be adopted this month.

In two other bills, the House and the Senate have also earmarked $2.1 billion in 1990 for the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children. That program provides nutritional assistance and counseling to low-income pregnant women, mothers, and their children.

The program currently serves approximately 3.9 million poor women and children each month--only about half of those who are potentially eligible. The bill would allow more than 200,000 additional clients to be served, officials estimate.

In another development, the Agriculture Department announced this summer that schools in which 60 percent of the lunches served are free or offered at a reduced price will be eligible for higher reimbursements.

In the July 13 issue of the Federal Register, the agency said these schools will receive $1.5525 for each free lunch served, $1.1525 for each reduced-price meal served, and 16.75 cents for each full-price lunch.

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