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Child-nutrition programs in the United States are plagued by underfunding, "bureaucratic red tape,'' and misconceptions that limit their scope and potential, a report published by a national advocacy group charges.

The report says that while such programs as the U.S. Agriculture Department's Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, and the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs have been shown effective in reducing health costs and improving the ability of children to learn in school, they are routinely underfunded.

The report was published last month by the National Health/Education Consortium, an umbrella group of 57 child-health and education groups. The consortium is sponsored by the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality and the Institute for Educational Leadership.

School officials consider the paperwork required to operate the federal programs to be unnecessarily cumbersome and believe it compromises their ability to provide more school lunches to children, according to the report.

Another common barrier to participation in child-nutrition programs is the misperception that they are only for poor children, said the report's author, Karen B. Troccoli, who conducted interviews with 30 child-nutrition and education experts.

In an interview, Ms. Troccoli cited a 1983 Agriculture Department evaluation of school-nutrition programs that found that students from every socioeconomic level who enrolled in school-lunch programs received more nutrients than those who did not participate.

"They were better off eating the school lunches rather than running off campus to fast-food restaurants,'' she said.

To increase access to nutrition efforts, the report recommends fully funding child-nutrition programs, streamlining their administrative requirements, and promoting development of innovative nutrition programs in schools.

It also recommends promoting to policymakers the relationship between children's health and ability to learn in school.

Copies of the report, "Eat to Learn, Learn to Eat: The Link Between Nutrition and Learning in Children,'' are available from the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, 330 C St., S.W., Switzer Building, Room 2014, Washington, D.C. 20201; (202) 205-8364.

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