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Key Paperwork-Reduction Measures Rejected by U.S.D.A.

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Washington--The Agriculture Department has rejected several proposals that school food-service administrators believe would reduce the paperwork burden of school-meals programs.

In a report sent to the Congress last month, the department, which administers the school-meals programs, said it was making progress in implementing the paperwork-reduction sections of the 1989 law that reauthorized the school breakfast and lunch programs.

But it also rejected several recommendations made by a task force on paperwork reduction. The panel, which included administrators of child-nutrition programs, school food-service personnel, and commodity distributors, said the recommendations, if enacted, would make federal nutrition programs easier to administer.

"I'm concerned that some of the more timely issues and recommendations of the paperwork-reduction task force were ignored," said Annette Bomar, a task-force member and the administrator of the school and community nutrition division in the Georgia Department of Education.

School food-service directors have long maintained that the federal school breakfast and lunch programs are difficult to administer because the department requires what they consider to be excessive docu4mentation. These concerns were a central focus of the reauthorization hearings in 1989.

At the same hearings, the usda said some schools were overreporting the number of free and reduced-price meals that they serve, potentially costing the government millions of dollars. Under the program, schools receive higher reimbursement for free and reduced-price meals than for full-price meals.

Responding to these concerns, the Congress two years ago required the department to reduce paperwork requirements in seven areas. It also told the department to develop a unified federal and state accountability system to supervise schools participating in the federal school-meals programs.

Proposed regulations for this unified review process were released late last year, and final regulations are due this summer. The American School Food Service Association, however, believes this review will duplicate existing efforts.

Rejected Ideas

In its report to the Congress, the usda rejected several of the task force's recommendations on the grounds that they would cost too much to implement or did not directly relate to paperwork reduction.

One such recommendation was to eliminate reduced-price breakfasts and lunches altogether by providing free meals to all children from fam8ilies with incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, only students from families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals; those from families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty level can receive reduced-price meals.

School food-service officials complain of the paperwork involved in documenting the two levels of discounted meals.

"This recommendation does not address issues related to reduction of paperwork, but rather advocates substantial additional federal funding," the department responded in its report. Such a recommendation would cost the federal government $405 million in fiscal year 1992, it said.

The department also rejected a recommendation to allow schools in which more than 40 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price meals to automatically receive "severe need reimbursement." Under current law, only those schools that can document additional costs are eligible for this additional reimbursement.

The usda also rejected proposals to reduce the number of meal applications that have to be verified by school officials each year, and to eliminate a requirement that schools must compare daily claims against the number of free, reduced-, and full-price meals actually served.

The department accepted recommendations that would allow schools to process students' meal applications before the start of a new school year, and to simplify the application.

Other suggestions, the department said, could be implemented pending the review of several pilot projects now in progress. One such program allows children eligible for free and reduced-price meals in some schools to complete applications for more than one school year at a time. Another program is testing alternative meal-counting systems.

School administrators said requirements such as these are forcing some schools to drop out of the school-lunch program.

In Maine, said Kevin Cowperthwaite, director of the state's school-nutrition programs, schools that have relatively few children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals find the rules especially burdensome.

"The big factor is the cost of someone doing the accountability measures," he said. "It's the same if you feed two kids or 200 kids."

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