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Proposed Cuts in School-Lunch Programs Assailed

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Washington--The Bush Administration's proposal to reduce the school-lunch subsidy for middle-income students would force many schools to stop serving meals, child-nutrition advocates said last week.

The proposal, which received a chilly reception at a hearing before the House subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, would reduce the federal subsidy to schools by 6 cents for every meal served to children from middle-income families. Instead, the money would be channeled to reducing the price of meals for children of the working poor.

About 24.5 million school-age children participate in the school-lunch program nationwide. Roughly half of the students who participate in this entitlement program are from families poor enough to qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.

Under Section 4 of the federal law authorizing school-meals programs, schools receive 16.25 cents for every breakfast or lunch they serve. The federal government provides higher reimbursement rates for free- and reduced-price meals.

Attempts to cut the Section 4 subsidy for meals served to middle-income students were a regular ele4ment of budget proposals during the Reagan Administration.

President Bush did not include the change in his first proposed budget to the Congress two years ago, but sought it--again without success--last year.

Over the years, supporters of the school-lunch program have consistently argued that reducing Section 4 payments would make breakfast and lunch programs too costly for many schools to maintain.

"Whenever we jiggle around around with Section 4, we always run into problems," said Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the subcommittee. "We always run into people dropping out and schools dropping out."

Overall, the Bush Administration's budget proposal for fiscal 1992 calls for an increase of $229.7 mil8lion for the school-lunch program, raising total federal funding to nearly $3.7 billion. The budget also calls for a $65.6-million increase for the school-breakfast program, raising total funding to $722 million.

Under both programs, children from families that make less than 130 percent of the federally defined poverty level--$16,500 for a family of four--qualify for free meals.

Students from families that make up to 185 percent of the poverty level, or about $24,000 for a family of four, qualify for reduced-price meals.

Those students currently pay 40 cents a day for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast. Under the Bush plan, prices would drop to 15 cents for lunch and 10 cents for breakfast. All other students would pay the full price.

At the hearing, Betty Jo Nelson, administrator of the Agriculture Department's food and nutrition service, which oversees the school-feeding programs, said the President's proposal would redirect scarce resources to needy children.

The Administration, she said, expects to spend more money on school meals as a result of this proposal. If, as officials hope, more children from working-poor families are enticed by the lower prices to buy their lunch, then the government will have to reimburse more meals at the higher reduced-price rates, she said.

Ms. Nelson also argued that middle-income children are unlikely to stop buying their lunch at school just because the price has gone up 6 cents. "I don't think families making over $24,000 will be making big changes over 6 cents a day," she said.

Under questioning, however, Ms. Nelson acknowledged that some schools need the Section 4 subsidy to maintain a self-sustaining program. "I can't tell you in all candor that this won't push some school that is on the edge out of the program," she said.

"You can't take from one and give to the other without the program collapsing," countered Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the panel.

"My mind is not closed on the issue, but boy, you would have a tough time opening it," Mr. Goodling said.

"We have to understand that no one has come up with a cheaper way of feeding free and reduced-price children if they drop the school-lunch program," he said. "I don't want to give school administrators an easy reason to drop out of the school-lunch program."

In testimony, the American School Food Service Association estimated that between 1 and 2 million students would drop out of the program if the proposal is implemented.

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