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Improving Nutritional Content of School Meals Seen Priority

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Washington

As Congress gears up to reauthorize the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition acts, observers are predicting that improving the nutritional content of school meals and helping food-service administrators cut back on burdensome paperwork will be among lawmakers' top priorities.

Absent thus far--to the frustration of lawmakers and lobbyists alike--is any clear sign about what the Clinton Administration may propose for the programs.

A spokesman for the Agriculture Department, which oversees the programs, said the agency will submit a proposal within six to eight weeks. However, several aides and lobbyists said that they did not expect to see a formal proposal from the Administration at all.

"All they care about is fat,'' said one observer, referring to proposals to reduce the amount of fat in school meals.

Indeed, lawmakers are expected to approve provisions requiring schools to follow federal dietary guidelines in the preparation of school menus, which observers say is the one change the Administration has actively supported.

Efforts to improve the nutritional content of school meals have often been stymied by the powerful farm lobby. Agricultural interests view the food programs primarily as outlets for excess commodities, which tend to be high-fat items such as cheese.

Milk and Paperwork

However, the provisions lawmakers are expected to consider would not mandate specific nutritional content in particular meals, but would just require schools to take dietary guidelines into account. The provision is included in bills introduced by committee leaders in both the House and Senate, and is expected to pass without much debate.

A proposal to remove a requirement that schools offer whole milk to students is expected to be more controversial. Dairy-state lawmakers have blocked such efforts in the past, but some observers predict that the change can win enough votes to pass this year.

Lawmakers are also expected to include provisions designed to cut down on what Kevin Dando, the manager of government affairs for the American School Food Service Association, called the "absolutely moronic'' amount of paperwork that schools must submit in administering the meals programs.

Congress is also considering proposals to:

  • Combat bid-rigging in school-meals contracts, an issue that came to public attention in recent years as many dairy companies have been prosecuted for fixing prices of milk sold to schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1993.)
  • Authorize funds for nutrition education and the training of food-service personnel.
  • Permit schools to bar soft drinks and candy from being sold on school grounds.
  • Make permanent the letter-of-credit program, a pilot effort that allows schools more flexibility in how they purchase some foods.

Although pending reauthorization bills also contain a variety of provisions that would expand services under the lunch, breakfast, and summer-nutrition programs--by increasing authorized spending levels, broadening eligibility, or increasing subsidies--aides and lobbyists say that budgetary restrictions will probably prohibit passage of most proposals that would directly increase federal costs.

Lynn Parker, the director of child-nutrition programs and nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, said the inhospitable budgetary climate has dashed "the hopes and dreams of the child-nutrition community.''

The Administration's budget included little new money for school-meals programs, and the budget resolution being debated by a House-Senate conference committee will likely set overall federal spending only a little higher than in fiscal 1994.

Money Worries

"The bottom line is, anything that costs money is on hold for right now,'' said an aide to Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

For example, a proposal to increase subsidies for elementary school lunches, which child-nutrition advocates consider vital, is likely to be sacrificed.

Currently, students whose family income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty level receive free lunches, while children whose family income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the line receive lunches for no more than 40 cents. Schools receive greater federal subsidies for these children than for those who pay.

Child advocates would like to eliminate the reduced-price category and give free lunches to all elementary school children whose family income is under the 185 percent mark. But the cost could be prohibitive; a Senate Republican aide said it has been estimated at $200 million per year.

Observers said that lawmakers are most likely to increase authorized-funding levels for the school-breakfast program and the special nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC.

While some child-nutrition advocates bemoaned the budgetary limits, Ed Cooney, the deputy director of FRAC, was more sanguine, noting that initiatives such as a universal lunch program--which would provide every child with a free lunch, regardless of income--might be introduced as pilot programs in particular districts or schools.

The House subcommittee has held several hearings and plans to mark up its bill next week, while the Senate Agriculture Committee plans to begin work in late May.

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