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Reagan cuts eat into school lunches

Schoolchildren are lining up for their share of the Reagan administraion's budget cut by paying more for less food on their lunch trays. Along with other cuts signed into law last month, President Reagan trimmed $1 .46 billion from $5.66 billion earmarked for child nutrition programs. Critics of the cutback point out that the money saved roughly equals the $1.44 billion spent last year in federal subsidies for the Pentagon's five executive dining rooms for military officers.

Dennis Barrett, food service director for the 92,000 schoolchildren in the Clark County, Nev., school district (which includes the City of Las Vegas), says that he's "furious" with the drastic cuts in nutrition programs while other programs such as tobacco subsidies remain almost untouched. "That our young people are not as important as keeping the price of cigarettes down is absolutely criminal," he says.

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But, according to Mary C. Jarratt, assistant secretary for food and consumer services at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), "The proposed changes are designed to maintain the nutritional balance of the oldest federal feeding program in the country, while at the same time providing state and local officials more flexibility in controlling costs and simplifying administration." USDA food services section head Virginia Wilkening says the effect of the cuts will be limited because "we fully expect a lot of schools will continue to serve larger amounts than the regulations specify." Smaller portions and more flexible regulations also are intended to cut "plate waste," generally estimated at 15 percent.

USDA officials will meet critics head on Thursday and Friday (Sept. 17 and 18 ) in congressional hearings on the school meals proposals. The USDA and a number of school officials will argue that program cutbacks can be made without seriously hurting children.

Responsibility for implementing the nutrition program cutbacks falls on the USDA. Most attention so far is focused on the largest feeding program, the school lunch program. This year the program, which serves 26 million children in 94,000 schools, is meant to pare spending by $1 billion.

The USDA has authorized meal price increases and proposes reductions in the size of school meal portions. Already most schools around the country have doubled the charge for reduced-price meals to 40 cents and raised full-price meals to as mush as $1.30. Since these price increases are not expected to cover the full $1 billion loss of federal support, the USDA proposes cutting the size of school meals and permitting alternatives such as using yogurt or soybean curd (tofu) in place of meat. The USDA also has tightened eligibility requirements and expects that a considerable number of students will no longer qualify for free or reduced price meals. (Currently 55 percent pay full price, 7 percent reduced price, and 38 percent qualify for free meals.)

Critics, however, charge that the changes are turning meals into "snacks." School officials warn that this shift may cause serious health and educational problems for many children who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs for more than half their nutritional needs.

Because inflation has been a constant challenge, schools are already familiar with ways to cut costs while boosting nutritional values. Earl Newsome, school lunch program director in Houston, and his Chicago counterpart, Cain Jones, both feel they have improved their programs by providing foods that children like to eat: burritos, tacos, pizza. With stress on high-quality ingredients, Mr. Jones says, "We hope we're gaining more from improving the nutritional value than we're losing from the budget cutbacks."

Elizabeth Cagan, New York City's food services director, fought the budget cuts but now concentrates on creative ways to do more with less. Close cooperation with suppliers means that the city's 520,000 lunches contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives. Her "tasting portion" innovation gives students a chance to try something new -- and then go back for more if they like it. As well, she hopes to keep New York's reduced price lunch at 20 cents because "We don't want to take the chance of children dropping out of the program because of the money."

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Dennis Barret in Las Vegas reports that increased prices there have cut student participation by about 30 percent because "Mom and Dad don't know where they're going to get that extra few dollars each week." The result, he says, is in some cases more brown bags filled with soda pop, potato chips, a small sandwich, and a candy bar -- and in other cases "not eating at all."

Worries about cutbacks in the nutrition programs coincide with recent studies indicating that current programs already are inadequate.

Just when the administration has cut the school lunch program, Congress's General Accounting Office has issued a report entitled "Efforts to Improve School Lunch Programs: Are They Paying Off?" After tests, including laboratory analyses, the report concluded that "None of the secondary-school lunch formats tested in the seven school districts reviewed met the program's goal of providing over time one-third of the students' RDA [recommended dietary allowances] even though the lunches as offered on the average met or exceeded the amounts of food required in the meal pattern. Some nutrients did not even met one-fourth RDA."

In what school officials feel is a final affront, the Reagan administration and Congress are considering this week further spending cuts for child nutrition programs.

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