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The U.S. Agriculture Department's policies have channeled excessive amounts of high-fat butter and cheese products to the federal school-lunch program, a study released this month by Public Voice for Food and Health Policy charges.

The Washington-based consumer group examined the department's commodities program from 1979 to 1991. It found that one-third of the $10.2 billion spent on school lunches went to butter and cheese, more than 90 percent of the fruits and vegetables were canned or frozen, and most potatoes contained added fat.

"We need to reverse our priorities when it comes to the school-lunch program and stop putting agricultural issues before the nutritional needs of children,'' said Patricia McGrath Morris, the group's research director.

Public Voice is calling on the government to eliminate school requirements to purchase whole milk in lieu of lower-fat milk, reduce price supports for surplus dairy products, and establish limits on the amounts of butter and cheese distributed to schools.

Spokesmen for the department argued that the report is outdated and that changes in the nutritional specifications of food have already been implemented.

Commodities distributed under the program constitute 20 percent of school lunches consumed by 24 million children in 92,000 schools nationwide.

The Fannie Mae Foundation, an arm of the Federal National Mortgage Association, last week donated $5.5 million to establish the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing with the goal of shielding children from toxic exposure to deteriorating lead paint found in many older homes. The center will fund local efforts by five cities that have already taken steps to confront the problem.

Ingestion of lead paint chips and dust by children under age 7 is the leading environmental hazard afflicting young children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Health officials believe more than three million children have suffered from impaired intelligence and developmental difficulties due to lead exposure.

Some 20 million homes built before 1978 are believed to contain unsafe levels of lead.

The C.D.C. also reports that alcohol and marijuana use among high school students far exceeds national health goals.

Forty-six percent of the 12,272 students surveyed said they had drunk alcohol, 24 percent said they had smoked cigarettes, and 11 percent reported using marijuana at least once in the 30 days preceding the survey.

National health-policy goals for 2000 call for only 12 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds to be drinking, 3 percent to be using marijuana, and 15 percent to be smoking daily by the time they are 20 years old.--J.P.

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