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School-Lunch Law Forces Change in New Nutritional Rules

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The child-nutrition bill awaiting President Clinton's signature will force a change in the Agriculture Department's proposed school-meals regulations, giving schools greater flexibility in meeting new, leaner dietary standards.

But U.S.D.A. officials are downplaying the change, pointing to the new bottom line, which will require schools participating in federal meals programs to cut the fat and salt content of the food they serve by the 1996-97 school year--two years sooner than the department had proposed.

In reauthorizing the school-lunch and -breakfast programs, lawmakers struck down a U.S.D.A. proposal to require computerized nutrient analysis of meals. They agreed with school lobbyists that the mandate was impractical, and they gave schools the option of basing menus on food types. The U.S.D.A. now must develop recipes, menu cycles, and food guides, as well as enforcement procedures. The department has until next June to propose final regulations.

Phil Shanholtzer, a U.S.D.A. spokesman, said that schools should be able to meet the dietary guidelines by following "food-based menu systems."

"We're not unhappy with this. We can live with it," he said. "The bottom line is we want meals to meet dietary guidelines."

'A Very Good Rule'

Kevin Dando, a spokesman for the American School Food Service Association, said his group supported the new dietary standards, but not mandatory food analysis.

"Schools must meet dietary guidelines," Mr. Dando said. "We just wanted to give schools a less expensive option."

"We think it is a very good rule and will have an immediate impact on all children that participate in school meals," said Ed Cooney, the deputy director of the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group. "It provides more than one option and calls for speedier enforcement."

But some observers said the change could undermine the new dietary standards, noting that computer analysis can document the nutritional content of meals.

Tricia Obester, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, argued that the new law will be hard to monitor and enforce.

"It's critical that verification be as strong as possible. Now, 99 percent of schools don't follow regulations," said Ms. Obester.

She predicted that the new menu plans will be more restrictive than supporters expect. Schools would be better off developing their own menus, as long as they can meet the new standards, she said.

"Real people will go around to schools to make sure they're doing it correctly," said a Congressional aide who worked on the legislation. "If they refuse to comply, they get thrown off the program. I think that's pretty tough."

While advancing enforcement of the new guidelines to 1996, lawmakers gave the U.S.D.A. authority to waive the rule for up to two years on a case-by-case basis.

Currently, schools are supposed to follow a "prescribed meal pattern." At lunch, that means one serving of meat or a meat alternative, two servings of a vegetable or fruit, one serving of bread or grain, and milk. Mr. Shanholtzer said the new menus likely will resemble existing meal patterns, but will include foods that meet the new dietary guidelines.

Schools are still encouraged to use computer analysis, Mr. Shanholtzer said, and the U.S.D.A. will probably go ahead with plans to develop software for this purpose.

The new guidelines respond to a 1993 U.S.D.A. study, which found that school meals had too much fat and salt. Under the new rules, weekly menus must provide no more than 30 percent of their calories in fat and no more than 10 percent in saturated fat. (See Education Week, June 15, 1994.)

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