Administrators Fear Effect of School-Lunch Cuts

By Millicent Lawton — February 01, 1995 6 min read


January was a month of contradictions for Diane Santoro, the food-service director in the Wolcott, Conn., school district.

Wolcott is one of 35 districts testing new federal nutrition guidelines for school lunches that are scheduled to be phased in nationwide by 1997. The standards took effect in Wolcott last month, putting the district’s 3,000 students on the cutting edge of healthy school eating.

But last week, Ms. Santoro, in her annual presentation to the school board’s finance committee, warned that under the welfare-reform proposal being pushed by Capitol Hill Republicans, “the school-lunch program as we know it” would be gone.

The plan, contained in one of the bills drafted to enact the House G.O.P.'s “Contract With America,” would meld funding for all 10 federal food-assistance programs--including the school-meals programs--into a block grant.

The Republicans propose to finance the block grant at 95 percent of combined current spending for all the programs. But the Agriculture Department estimates that the plan would cut funding for the programs by as much as 13 percent, or more than $5 billion, below the amount that would be needed to continue current-service levels in fiscal 1996.

In Wolcott, Ms. Santoro figures that she stands to lose as much as $105,000 from her $600,000 annual food-service budget.

“We will be in serious financial difficulty,” she said. “It will take a lot of creative thinking to keep the program going.”

The American School Food Service Association has estimated that 40,000 schools could drop out of the program if the new Republican majority in Congress succeeds in cutting federal meal subsidies.

That could shut 10 million children out of the program, according to the food-service group. Currently, the school-lunch program serves 25 million children a day. School breakfasts are served to 5.8 million children.

The G.O.P. plan would also eliminate virtually all the regulations governing the school-meals programs, including dietary guidelines and minimum nutritional requirements. That, Ms. Santoro said, means that her work on creating balanced meals that are lower in fat “is all out the window.”

By lumping nutrition programs into a block grant, the proposed “personal responsibility act,” would allow states to decide how much of their overall funding would go to each one.

Entitlement No Longer

The plan would require each state to spend at least 20 percent of its grant on meals programs for schools and child-care centers. It also would earmark a minimum of 17 percent for other programs, primarily efforts supported by the current Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which would be entitled to 12 percent--more than its current share of overall nutrition spending. If states spent no more than the minimum 20 percent of their block grants on school-based and child-care meal programs, the Agriculture Department contends in a new report, 19 states would see their child-nutrition money cut by more than 25 percent. Just eight states would gain money under the plan, according to the U.S.D.A. analysis, which Republicans dispute.

Delaware could lose the most child-nutrition money of all the states--as much as 51 percent of current funding, the U.S.D.A. predicts, while Kansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota could each take a 44 percent cut in fiscal 1996, which begins Oct. 1.

Since states could decide to cope with lower overall spending levels by cutting other programs, not every state’s school-lunch program would necessarily fare as badly as the U.S.D.A. predicts.

However, the figures also assume that Congress appropriates the full amount authorized in 1996. While the current program is an entitlement, and Congress must appropriate enough funding for all eligible children, the block grant’s funding would not be guaranteed. Moreover, the amount lawmakers could spend would be limited to cost-of-living increases over the previous year, and a reduction in one year’s funding would mean that spending in future years would be restrained as well.

If the program loses its entitlement status, food-service administrators note, services would not automatically expand with any growth in the needy-student population brought by hard times.

The Republican proposal would also prohibit the Agriculture Department from donating surplus commodities to schools, rather than selling them. Those commodities would be worth about $762 million a year in fiscal 1996 to schools and other entities that run child-nutrition programs, according to the U.S.D.A.

Advocates contend that many programs could shut down entirely if the plan is enacted.

School Dropouts

Currently, schools receive subsidies to help pay for the overall cost of their food programs, as well as money to allow needy children to receive free or reduced-price meals. Thus, many middle-income and high-income children are now paying participants in the school-lunch program.

But the Republican proposal would prohibit serving subsidized meals to children from households with income above 140 percent to 170 percent of the national poverty level of $14,800 in annual income for a family of four.

Schools with relatively few students who are receiving free or reduced-price lunches would be tempted to drop out, food-service officials say, rather than pick up more of the cost themselves or continue the service only for a few children who are still eligible for subsidies.

Rita Hamman, who oversees nutrition services for the Kansas state board of education, said that when smaller cuts were made in school-lunch subsidies during the Reagan Administration, participation “fell off dramatically” in Kansas. The number of children participating each day fell about 13 percent statewide between September 1980 and September 1981, she said.

Schools’ participation also dropped nationwide. Between August 1981 and February 1982, 1,100 schools--with a total of 350,000 students--dropped out, according to the U.S.D.A.

But Republicans take issue with the dire picture painted by food-service lobbyists and the U.S.D.A. By consolidating 10 programs into one block grant, the plan would “eliminate 10 bureaucracies,” and allow “for a more effective delivery of nutrition service,” said Brian Gaston, the policy director for the House Republican Conference.

Funding for the programs would go up each year--with increases for food-price inflation as well as population increases--rather than go down, Mr. Gaston said.

Overly Pessimistic?

He also said the U.S.D.A. study is overly pesssimistic in assuming that states would only spend the minimum 20 percent on child-nutrition programs. “We have a lot more faith in the states than I guess the school administrators do,” Mr. Gaston said.

In states and school districts, the proposed changes have prompted alarm and uncertainty. One state director of child-nutrition programs said of the block-grant plan: “This is 180 degrees from where we are and how we’ve operated.”

In Wolcott, which has about 14,000 residents, about 1,800 students a day--55 percent of the district’s enrollment--receive school lunches. Since the Connectict district has relatively few poverty-level students, just 8 percent, or about 250 children, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

If the U.S.D.A.'s gloomy scenario came to pass, Ms. Santoro told the Wolcott school board’s finance committee, the only way to continue to offer the same lunch program would be to raise the price by at least 65 cents per lunch.

The children of the working poor and those with several children in school--who can now afford to pay a reduced or full price for lunch--would be hit hard by such a price increase, food-service directors said.

It could also be difficult for them to pay for food under an … la carte plan, which is a more profitable alternative for schools that drop out of the national program, officials said.

If her district chose to leave the federal program, Ms. Santoro said, she does not know what would happen to the children who depend on free lunches.

Ms. Hamman, the Kansas official, was willing to speculate, however.

“Those students that are eligible for free and reduced-price meals would be like everybody else,” she said. “If you have money, you can buy something to eat.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Education Week as Administrators Fear Effect of School-Lunch Cuts