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National Perspective : POLITICS : The School Lunch Debate

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Under welfare reforms promised by the House Republican “contract with America,” responsibility for providing school lunches would be transferred to the states, and reduced funds would flow from Washington in the form of block grants. Advocates of ending the federal effort argue that greater efficiencies can be acheived if states are given more leeway to customize their programs. President Clinton and other defenders contend that the program is working well and should not be cut back.

* Background: Spurred by widespread evidence of malnutrition among draftees in World War II, President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act on June 4, 1946, providing a daily meal to over 7 million children. The program was expanded in 1966 to include a school breakfast project.

* How it works: School districts that choose to participate get $1.76 each for any children receiving a free lunch, $1.36 for students receiving a reduced-price meal and 17 cents for all other students in the program.

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To qualify for a free lunch, the student’s family must have an income below 130% of the poverty level ($19,240 for family of four). To receive a reduced price meal, the student’s family must earn between 130% and 185% of the poverty level ($27,380.) Students whose family income exceeds these numbers qualify only for the slightly subsidized meal.

The national average cost of each meal is $1.70. A district may charge up to $1.76 for a reduced-price meal and can charge whatever it wants for the slightly subsidized meals.

Currently, 57% of all public school students receive lunch under the program.

* Proposed change: Under the House GOP proposal, the federal government would give the states a grant based on how many lunches are currently sold. States would set their own dietary guidelines and standards for who qualifies. Funding would begin at $4.6 billion in 1996, growing to $5.3 billion in the year 2000, an amount $2 billion less than provided for under current law. The plan would also allow states to funnel up to 20% of the money to other purposes.

* What’s next: The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee endorsed the GOP plan last week. It will be incorporated in the welfare reform bill now planned for a floor vote in the House on March 20. The Senate has not scheduled hearings on the matter.

How Block Grants Work

Instead of funding federal programs, the government may create a block grant so a city or state can fund its own programs.

Impact of Block Grants

FEDERAL

* Loses control of how the money is spent.

* Administrative costs are cut.

STATE

* Gains control of how money is spent.

* May receive less money when it comes as a block.

Percentage of Hungry Children

States with the highest percentage of children who are estimated to go hungry (California is at 18%)

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% of hungry Rank State children (1991) Number 1 Mississippi 34% 266,000 2 Louisiana 32% 407,000 3 New Mexico 28% 130,000 4 West Virginia 27% 122,000 5 Arkansas 26% 165,000 6 Kentucky 25% 248,000 7 Texas 25% 1,231,000 8 Alabama 25% 270,000 9 Arizona 22% 224,000 10 Oklahoma 22% 189,000

More Than Half Take Advantage of School Lunches Eat school lunch: 56% Bring lunch: 18% Eat other lunch at school: 11% No lunch: 7% Eat at home: 4% Eat lunch at restaurant: 4% *

* The nation has about 42 million children in public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade.

* About 14 million American schoolchildren received free or reduced-price school lunches last year.

* 5 million also received free or reduced-price breakfasts (not all schools offer breakfasts).

VOICES

“I would favor continuing the requirement that all the children have access to school lunch programs, but I would also allow states to look into what level do you subsidize it.”

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----House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga).

“I just can’t see the legislators giving the (block) money 100% to the food program. They will start looking at their pet projects and more kids will go hungry.”

----Michael G. Wilson, principal of Gates Elementary school in East Los Angeles, where almost 95% of the students receive a free or reduced price lunch.

Sources: Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy, Department of Agriculture

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