New School-Lunch Regulations Seek Lower Costs, Flexibility

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Washington--Last week, nearly six months after the Agriculture Department proposed, then withdrew, its controversial regulations for reducing local costs in the National School Lunch Program, it proposed new regulations, also designed to lower costs and increase flexibility for schools.

The new proposal would extend the use of the "offer-versus-serve" plan to all grade levels. Under this plan, which has been used since 1975 in high schools and since 1977 in junior-high and middle schools, school food-service personnel are required to offer full servings of five foods--meat, milk, bread, and two fruits and/or vegetables--and students must take at least three of the foods.

Under the 1981 Omnibus Reconciliation Act, elementary schools were permitted to try the plan on an experimental basis.

The rationale behind the new regulations, according to Mary Jarratt, assistant secretary for food and consumer services, who announced the regulations, is that schools will waste less food if students are not required to accept food that they have no interest in eating.

Through this reduction of "plate waste," school officials will be able to save money and hence will be in a better position to absorb the loss of federal funding for the program, she said. Ms. Jarratt announced the new regulations at the 10th annual legislative conference of the American School Food Service Association, held last week in Washington.

Reduced Prices

Currently, the National School Lunch Program provides lunches to about 23 million schoolchildren. Of these, about 10 million receive free lunches, 1.5 million pay a reduced price for lunch, and about 11.5 million pay the full price for the meal, according to the Agriculture Department.

The program lost about $1 billion in federal funding in last year's budget cuts. The President's proposed fiscal 1983 budget would maintain roughly the same funding for child nutrition--$2.8 billion--as the program received in 1982.

At the same time that Congress cut the budget for the program, however, it also passed a measure requiring the Agriculture Department to develop new regulations that would allow districts to cut costs and give them more flexibility in their planning. The department's first proposed regulations, issued last fall, did not survive an onslaught of negative publicity, most of which centered on the proposed use of ketchup and other condiments as vegetables.

Although that set of regulations had the support of many school food-service administrators, who favored the smaller required portions and denied that they would take advantage of the changes to serve nutritionally inadequate meals, the Agriculture Department nevertheless withdrew them after the White House intervened.

Money-Saving Idea

The new proposal, which is backed by research data suggesting that the offer-versus-serve option is indeed a money-saving proposition, is expected to be far less controversial. Prior to announcing the proposal, the Agriculture Department surveyed a nationally representative sample of elementary schools and found that an estimated 19,000--or 37 percent--of the nation's 51,000 elementary schools had voluntarily put the option plan into effect.

According to this poll, taken last December, participation rose by an average of three percent in elementary schools in which officials added the offer-versus-serve plan.

A second, informal survey conducted in February by the Agriculture Department, according to Ms. Jarratt, supported the claim that the plan could reduce food waste and was popular with school officials, parents, and students. In the 633 elementary schools surveyed, 95 percent of the students, 90 percent of the parents, and 80 percent of the food-service workers had a "very favorable" response to the program.

Plate Waste Reduced

Since the program was put into effect, according to this survey, 73 percent of the food-service personnel said that plate waste was reduced "significantly"; 21 percent said they observed a slight reduction; 2 percent said that they observed no reduction; and 4 percent had no estimate.

The survey also found that a majority of the school officials believed that they save an average of four to five cents per serving per day when the offer-versus-serve plan was put into effect, because less food is wasted.

Food-service administrators from several districts that had tried the plan also reported favorable reactions. "The children like it," said Frances McClone, the director of the school-lunch program in Oakland, Calif. She said the plan had allowed food-service administrators to be more flexible in their planning and serving of food.

Memphis food-service officials saw a "staggering increase" in participation and in "empty garbage cans"--a sign that far less food was being wasted, according to Shirley Watkins, who administers the school-lunch program for the public schools there.

Meeting Children's Needs

"It's a way of meeting children's needs without throwing food, and therefore money, into the garbage can," said Elizabeth Cagan, food-service administrator for the New York City Public Schools.

All of the food-service administrators, however, cautioned that good planning and communication are essential in putting the offer-versus-serve plan into effect in elementary schools.

"Implementation is entirely different than for high-schools and junior highs," said Gertrude Applebaum, administrator in Corpus Christi, Tex. "You have to go through the principal. You have to go through the parents."

But, she added, "Everybody wants to see kids eat, and they're eating. They're eating things they wouldn't eat before."

A 60-day comment period on the regulations will follow their March 19 publication in the Federal Register.--S.W.

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