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House Backs Bill To Extend Free Meals to More Children

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Washington

The House has approved a bill that would make free lunch and breakfast programs available to more children, cut down on meal providers' paperwork, and help bring fresher fruits and vegetables to schools.

HR 8, approved late last month on a 372-to-40 vote, would reauthorize the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts.

The bill does not impose new nutritional requirements, and its only reference to sweeping new regulations proposed by the Agriculture Department is language calling on the agency to assist schools in complying with the new rules.

The regulations, announced earlier this summer, would require school-meal programs to meet the United States Dietary Guidelines and reduce the fat content of their meals to 30 percent of calories. (See Education Week, June 15, 1994.)

The bill includes a compromise on one longstanding nutritional issue, an amendment that would allow schools to stop serving whole milk if it accounts for less than 1 percent of the previous year's sales.

The "healthy meals for healthy Americans act'' also aims to expand the school-breakfast program, which advocacy groups have called one of the most "underutilized'' federal programs. It makes the breakfast startup program permanent by providing $5 million a year to help schools launch breakfast programs.

The legislation would also make children enrolled in Head Start and preschoolers participating in the Even Start program automatically eligible for free meals without any additional paperwork.

Compromise on Commodities

In addition, the bill would allow schools to refuse to accept the fruits and vegetables provided by the federal commodity distribution program.

According to a report published by the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, schools often cannot use the produce.

"Schools are getting, say, 10 crates of tomatoes that are bad or will go bad before kids can eat them,'' said Julie Rabinovitz, a special projects assistant for the advocacy group.

Under a compromise, added to the bill before it was considered by the House, schools refusing the produce would receive an equivalent amount of another commodity and be required to use an equal amount of their cash reimbursements to buy fresh fruits and vegetables elsewhere.

The bill would also institute harsher penalties for fraud, bid-rigging, and other anti-competitive practices.

"We think [this legislation] is going to help a lot of people,'' said Ed Cooney, the deputy director at the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group that focuses on low-income children.

A companion bill is expected to reach the Senate floor in the next couple of weeks.

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