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Agency To Stop Providing 'Bonus' Flour to Schools for Free

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WASHINGTON--The Agriculture Department's decision to eliminate flour as a bonus commodity item to schools is likely to have a limited impact on most schools' feeding programs, school and commodity officials say.

Beginning next school year, the U.S.D.A. will end a more than 10-year-old policy of providing "bonus'' flour to schools free of charge. Schools, however, will still be able to purchase flour as an "entitlement'' commodity from the department.

During the current school year, department officials said they expect to distribute 200 million pounds of flour worth about $23 million free of charge to schools. No flour was available as an entitlement commodity this school year.

Under the entitlement provision of the school-meals program, feeding programs are given credits from the U.S.D.A. to be used to purchase a variety of goods from the department, which buys flour and other commodities from producers at bulk-rate prices.

During the 1990-91 school year, fewer than 16 million pounds of flour were distributed without cost to schools. Based on their size and meal patterns, schools could purchase 196.2 million pounds of flour as an entitlement commodity.

The amount of flour that the department has distributed to schools as a bonus commodity has shifted over the years to reflect market conditions. As a result of federal agricultural policies over the past decade that have discouraged the production of surplus wheat, the department will no longer be able to distribute flour free of charge to schools for the foreseeable future, department officials said.

"It is a reflection of the fact that this, like other agricultural products, are not available in the quantities that they once were,'' said Phil Shanholtzer, a spokesman for the U.S.D.A.

During the 1990-91 school year, the department gave out a total of $82.6 million in bonus commodities, and made $542.9 million available as entitlement commodities. During the previous school year, $107.5 million in goods was available as bonus and $516.5 million in commodities available as entitlement goods.

Several years ago, in response to the U.S.D.A.'s decision to end the bonus distribution of cheese, many schools across the country were forced to raise school lunch prices. (See Education Week, March 29, 1989.)

'No Huge Problem'

The removal of flour as a bonus item, said some school-lunch experts, is unlikely to have the same effect, and may cost schools as little as one or two cents a meal.

"I don't anticipate a huge problem,'' said Barry Shutt, director of the bureau of government-donated food for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "We will adjust, quite adequately.''

Noting that much more flour than usual was given out as a bonus item this year, he said, "You can say that we had a good thing for one year.''

Catherine Miller, the chief of the bureau of government-donated foods in the New York State Office of General Services, said that the state received about 12 million pounds of flour from the federal government this school year. The loss of the free flour means that state will no longer provided processed flour products to the school districts, she said.

"Schools will pay increased cost for all bread and baked goods,'' she said, noting that the cost of flour is expected to rise from about 13 cents to 15 cents a pound.

In contrast, she noted, the loss of bonus cheese, which costs schools about $1.30 a pound, was more difficult to manage.

"Compared to the loss of cheese a couple of years ago, this will have much less of an impact,'' Ms. Miller said.

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