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Pilot Effort in 12 Districts Is Launched To Cut Paperwork in Meals Programs

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Washington--In an attempt to reduce the paperwork associated with administering school-meals programs, the Department of Agriculture has begun a pilot effort under which selected districts may alter the way they run their programs.

The 12 districts participating in the pilot will implement a wide range of programs to test alternative ways of counting the number of free, reduced-price, and full-price lunches they serve. Some districts will also test alternative application processes for students who want to receive free or reduced-price meals.

School food-service personnel have long complained that the government requires too much paperwork and documentation of schools participating in the federal school-lunch program.

Under the existing program, schools each day must count the number of free, reduced-price, and full-price meals they serve in order to receive additional federal funds to cover the cost of serving the discounted lunches.

But legislation adopted last year to reauthorize the school-meals program required the usda to carry out this pilot program.

"It's gotten to the point that food-service directors have said that they literally spend more time with paperwork than working with kids," said Kevin Dando, a government-affairs specialist with the American School Food Service Association. "This whole program is a step in the right direction."

Beginning this school year, three districts--Atlantic City, N.J., Terrell County, Ga., and Milford, Me.--will be allowed to multiply total daily meal counts by an annual percentage to determine the number of free, reduced-price, and full-price meals to claim for reimbursement for the next three years.

Starting with the 1991-92 school year, nine additional districts have been granted the authority to conduct paperwork-reduction projects. Probably the most far-reaching program will be piloted in the Philadelphia school system, where all students at 127 of the district's 256 schools will receive free meals without an application through the 1992-93 school year.

Currently, only those students who can document that they come from poor families can receive the free or discounted meals. In Philadelphia, about 80,000 of the district's 200,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, including more than 80 percent of the students who attend these 127 schools, the usda said.

In a similar project, all students at 6 of the 38 schools in Jersey City, N.J., will be eligible for free lunches starting next school year. During the current year, school personnel will document how much time it takes them to count meals daily, said Susan Solleder, executive director of cafeterias for the district.

"We spend more time doing claim procedures sometimes than we do worrying about the food," she said. "It's a real pain in the neck."--ef

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