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U.S.D.A. Program Seeks Healthier School Lunches

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WASHINGTON--The Agriculture Department pledged last week to beef up the school-lunch program's nutritional value by reducing fat in meat and dairy products and increasing the amount and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables offered to schools.

About 25 million children in 92,000 schools participate in the lunch program nationwide, nearly half from low-income families.

"Fresh Start,'' which the U.S.D.A. announced last week as the first step in a long-term nutrition initiative, is to double the amount of fruits and vegetables available to schools through the commodity program, to nearly 18 million pounds.

On average, 2 percent of the money spent on commodities for schools purchases fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S.D.A.

In addition to more fresh-produce choices, some schools this year may be able to experiment with a new low-fat mozzarella cheese or a low-fat turkey sausage.

School meals generally do not meet the U.S.D.A.'s dietary standard that calls for consuming less than 30 percent of total calories from fat. The average school meal in 1989-90 got 38 percent of its calories from fat.

While many nutrition experts praised the agency for taking an important first step, they emphasized that U.S.D.A. commodities make up only 17 percent of school lunches.

'Help Schools Make It Happen'

"We see this initiative as an attempt to begin to address that [fat] problem,'' said Christine R. Morris, the manager of the comprehensive school-health project for the National School Boards Association. "But the leadership the federal government is taking can only be helpful.''

The director of child-nutrition programs at the Food Research and Action Center, Lynn Parker, said the agency's approach is prudent.

"If you want to decrease fat, you have to help make schools make it happen,'' instead of simply telling them to do it, she said.

"One way to help is to provide them fruits and vegetables at reduced cost,'' Ms. Parker said. "It makes a lot of sense to reduce fats in foods that children like to eat, like cheese in pizza.''

The U.S.D.A. plans to hold four public hearings to gather suggestions for further changes in the program, which Congress is to reauthorize next year. Hearings are scheduled Oct. 13 in Atlanta; Oct. 27 in Los Angeles; Nov. 12 in Flint, Mich.; and Dec. 7 in Washington.

Logistical Difficulties

Historically, commodities the agency has sent to schools often have included high-fat and heavily processed foods such as butter, beef, and oven-fried potatoes.

The primary reason is that market surpluses influence the agency's purchases, sometimes overriding students' nutritional needs, said Dorothy R. Caldwell, the president of the American School Food Service Association. The program's original intent was to dispose of surplus commodities.

Ms. Caldwell said the idea of adding more fresh produce is a good one, but implementing it may prove difficult, since each state has a different system for delivering commodities.

"I'll have to be shown that U.S.D.A. can deliver top-quality produce at a lower price than schools are doing it now--that's the bottom line,'' Ms. Caldwell said. "I don't want to see our commodity dollars spent on produce that can't be served'' because it arrived badly bruised or rotten.

Ms. Caldwell's concern is echoed in a report by Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer group that releases annual reports on the school-lunch program. It states that more than 80 percent of school-food-service directors want more fresh produce, but the majority of state commodity directors said they were "dubious'' about the U.S.D.A.'s ability to deliver fresh produce.

While the U.S.D.A.'s new plan may indicate a welcome change in attitude, it is unlikely to dramatically change what appears on students' plates, said Tricia A. Obester, a spokeswoman for Public Voice.

"Their role can be one of leadership,'' Ms. Obester said. "But the reality is that U.S.D.A. [now] delivers a tiny bit of fresh produce and doubling a very tiny bit is still not very much.''

Another question is whether children will eat the new offerings. The report by Public Voice concluded that 23 percent of elementary students' meals get thrown away, and that one in three lunches selected by students have no fruits or vegetables.

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