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A Political Food Fight

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Washington

The federal school-lunch program, which has not seen this much attention since the Reagan Administration proposed counting ketchup as a vegetable, has again been caught in the middle of a nasty partisan food fight on Capitol Hill.

The House was poised late last week to approve a welfare-reform bill that would replace the current school-meals programs and other federal child-nutrition programs with a lump-sum payment, or block grant, to the states. (See related story.)

Proponents say the change would cut bureaucracy and give states more flexibility to design better programs. But the idea has horrified and angered Democrats and advocates for children, who say the existing programs work well. The school-lunch program, founded in 1946, serves 25 million students every day--about half of all schoolchildren--and the school-breakfast program feeds 5.8 million children daily.

In the weeks since the bill emerged from committee, claims and counterclaims about just what the Republican-controlled Congress is proposing to do to school-meals programs have been flying daily over fax machines and airwaves here and nationwide. As floor debate began last week on HR 1214, the rhetoric intensified and press conferences multiplied.

In the words of one lobbyist, it was a "monumental week for school nutrition."

How Much Money?

Much of the debate has centered on the amount of money that would be available. Is the G.O.P. plan a cut, as critics allege, or are the Republicans "growing school meals," as Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the(See Educational Opportunities Committee, claimed in a recent news release?

A detailed look at the plan reveals a modest overall increase in authorized funding for the programs in the block grant. But it is a smaller increase than might be predicted based on current spending policy.

The bill would repeal the federal guarantee of a free or reduced-price meal for every low-income child who qualifies for one, making the proposed spending levels in the bill subject to annual approval by appropriators.

Critics argue that without the funding guarantees carried by programs with entitlement status, school-meals programs might have to turn away eligible children if a recession swelled their ranks. In response, Republicans say that Congress could easily make an emergency appropriation the way it does after a natural disaster.

Opponents of block grants have also noted that appropriations for them tend to decline over time, as they lack a clear identity and have no specific constituency lobbying for them. The Chapter 2 block grant, for example, which wrapped together a number of categorical education programs in 1981, has seen its funding drop significantly in recent years. (See related story .)

Uncertain Allocations

Proponents of block grants often argue that while they might slow the rate of growth in some programs' funding, their flexibility should compensate with decreased paperwork and administrative costs.

But Gene White, the legislative coordinator for the American School Food Service Association, said the school-nutrition measure contains new paperwork burdens, most notably a requirement that schools determine which students are illegal aliens and exclude them from school-meals programs.

Becoming an "immigration officer" is an "excessive, costly new administrative requirement," said Ms. White, the former state director of school-nutrition programs in California.

Block grants would also cause budgetary uncertainty for districts. Increased state flexibility and shifting allocations among the states mean that the amount of money an individual district or school would receive would be impossible to predict even if total funding levels were known.

Critics of block grants note that state and local officials tend to spread money around to please a greater number of constituents--and more politically powerful constituents--rather than concentrating it in needy areas.

Under the formula lawmakers devised for the school-nutrition block grant, states would receive in the first fiscal year of the block-grant plan what they got the previous year under the lunch and breakfast programs, plus 12.5 percent of their allocations under other child-nutrition programs.

In the second through the fifth years--1997 through 2000--a state would get most of its money based on its share of what was spent across all states in the preceding year. A much smaller percentage of its money would be based on how many meals it served in a one-year period compared with the number of meals served in all states.

A Congressional aide said the intent is to encourage states to maintain their commitment to the school-meals program by rewarding them for serving the number of meals they serve now. But critics say this provision would encourage states to serve more meals more cheaply, cutting down on quality or quantity. The block-grant bill would repeal mandatory nutrition guidelines.

The proposal's legislative fate remains to be seen. It must still pass scrutiny in the Senate, where the G.O.P.'s margin is smaller, and avoid a veto by President Clinton, who has already expressed his support for the existing meals programs.

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