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Published in Print: October 23, 2002, as Some Say Drought Relief Takes School Food Money

Some Say Drought Relief Takes School Food Money

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School meals advocates and Democrats say that a recent drought-relief package for ranchers may siphon money away from some of the Department of Agriculture's school food programs.

The USDA has been distributing cash to herd owners since Oct. 1 to compensate them for losses caused by the two-year drought that has plagued 37 states. To pay $752 million out to ranchers, the department has tapped a fund that gives it wide latitude to spend money to aid farmers.

That fund traditionally has been the source of money for a variety of school programs, such as meals during summer school and after-school snacks. The USDA also spends the money to buy surplus fruits and vegetables that are then given for school meals and other nutrition programs.

"Diverting [dollars] away from the nutrition programs means they're not available for them," said Barry D. Sackin, the vice president for public policy for the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va. "It puts on a lot of pressure to constrain the program."

But Department of Agriculture officials say the agency has enough money in the $5.9 million fund—known as Section 32—to continue meeting the needs of schools and nonprofit groups that rely on it.

"The Livestock Compensation Program announced last month does not impair the department's ability to meet its responsibilities under the child-nutrition programs," Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman wrote in a letter to The New York Times in response to an Oct. 11 news story on the issue. "These important nutrition programs are fully financed and all of the entitlements will be provided."

Politics Over Lunch

The current debate over school meals arrives as the high-stakes battle for the control of Congress nears its climax.

On Sept. 19, Ms. Veneman announced that the USDA would use Section 32 money for drought relief and credited Rep. John Thune with the idea. Mr. Thune, a South Dakota Republican, is in a close Senate race in the agricultural state, which has been hit hard by the drought. His opponent is the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Tim Johnson.

Mr. Thune's proposal was attractive because it "will provide immediate assistance to livestock producers who need it the most," Ms. Veneman said in a Sept. 19 conference call with reporters who cover the agricultural industry. The plan also dovetails with President Bush's dictum that drought assistance shouldn't add to the federal deficit. Section 32 is financed by import duties, the agriculture secretary said.

Democrats are criticizing Ms. Veneman's decision, saying it fails to address farmers' needs and puts food programs at risk.

In addition to diverting Section 32 from nutrition programs, Democrats say the USDA's $752 million plan gives aid only to ranchers, but not all farmers and others affected by the drought, as an appropriations bill for drought relief would do. That is the traditional way of addressing emergencies, they say.

"Instead of supporting adequate assistance for our farms and ranchers, the administration has chosen to pit disaster-stricken farm and ranch families against hungry children, the poor, and other agricultural producers," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, said in an Oct. 10 statement. He faces a close re-election campaign against Republican Rep. Greg Ganske.

Safe Subsidies

The school lunch program has been the subject of past political battles. In 1995, Republicans proposed to end the entitlement program that guarantees schools subsidies for free and reduced-priced lunches and breakfasts. The GOP alternative would have instead provided states with school meals money that they could have spent as they wished. (A Political Food Fight, March 29, 1995.) This time, those subsidies remain safe.

The USDA already has set aside $4.7 billion from Section 32 to pay all the costs of the school lunch and breakfast programs, according to an analysis released by Mr. Harkin and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

But the Democrats go on to say that the lifestock program is almost certain to deplete Section 32, making it difficult to purchase surplus fruit, vegetables, pork, beef, and poultry. The USDA is required to spend at least $200 million from Section 32 on such products.

"We do not see how you will be able to meet this legal obligation," the Democrats wrote to Ms. Veneman on Oct. 10.

Vol. 22, Issue 8, Pages 18,22

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