America's school lunch program is in trouble. Across the country this fall, there has been an ''alarming'' drop in the number of students taking part in the 36-year-old National School Lunch Program.
Thousands of students are balking at the new, higher prices. Because of federal budget cuts, the cost of meals has risen to more than $1 in many school districts. In some schools, lunch now costs $1.50.
Students are fighting back with their own brown bag lunches.
The sudden ''alarming drop in participation imperils the whole program,'' warns Gene White, director of child nutrition in the State of California, where there has been a 30 percent drop in participation. ''They (paying students) support the rest of the program. They're essential to maintain the basic support and without them, the needy child can't be served.''
Already the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 400 school food services and 2.1 million students have dropped out of the lunch program, which was pared 40 percent or $1 billion over the summer. For example:
* Students are dropping out of the school lunch program ''in droves'' at the high school level in Clark County, Nev., says a food service official there. About 46 percent fewer high school students this year are participating in the school lunch program after a 30 percent price increase in the subsidized meals.
* In Litchfield, Conn., the school system hiked lunch prices about 45 percent. Now 25 percent fewer students are participating.
* In Hingham, Mass., a 60 percent price increase brought a 30 percent drop in participation.
Of the 23 million students in the federal program nationwide, roughly 38 percent receive free meals and 7 percent qualify for reduced-price meals. But the 55 percent who keep the program in the black, paying the full lunch price, are balking at meals costing more than $1.
In addition to subsidy cuts - 11 cents on full-price meals, 23 cents on reduced-price meals, and 3 cents on free meals - eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price meals were tightened, and the maximum charge for a reduced-price meal was doubled to 40 cents.
Not only are paying students being charged more than what was lost in subsidies, but ''kids who were poor last year aren't anymore'' under new eligiblity standards, explains Edward Cooney, an attorney with the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.
While the aim of the Reagan budget ax was to cut subsidies for students who could afford to pay for lunches, the real victims of the cuts may be children whose parents' income is just enough to disqualify them for assistance. Paying $ 1 per lunch per child is impossible for these families, says Mr. Cooney. These families cannot afford to provide a nutritionally balanced bag lunch either, he says. Because of this, these children probably will not get the nutrients at lunch time that the federal program ensured, he adds.
But, counters G. William Hoagland, head of the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, there is no proof that students reaped the most nutritional value they could from the old lunch program. (For example, children didn't always eat their whole meals.)
''There are other people who have direct responsibility for their (children's) nutrition. The federal government can't take it all on. Federal dollars could be better spent on nutrition education . . . to teach them good consumption patterns,'' says Mr. Hoagland.
As for the participation drop, Hoagland says he is not surprised that individuals would choose not to pay the higher prices. He suggests that the drop in participation may be a result of bad publicity before the details of the new plan were decided on.
For example, he cites an uproar caused by the so-called ''ketchup controversy'' as one reason schools may have quit the program. Liberal critics interpreted proposed changes in program guidelines to mean that ketchup and relish would be counted as vegetables in a student's meal.
USDA's Hoagland defends the new program, explaining that an administrative ''cleanup'' has given the program ''more integrity.'' Parents now must supply their social security numbers on applications and administrators are allowed to check income statements.
Also, he says, new application blanks do not list the income cutoff level for eligibility. This change may have caused a 15 percent reduction in free lunches in Kansas alone, he adds. He notes that the new form helps stop ''fudging'' on how much money parents are making.
Meanwhile, in Spokane County, Wash., the Central Valley School District dropped the federal lunch program after parents said they wouldn't pay more than
Food service director Shirley Larson says she is able to provide students with a 65-cent lunch approaching but not matching the nutritional value of the federal program. However, without the federal program, the 900 students who received free lunches before now must pay for their own meals.
In the Santa Cruz (Calif.) City School District, food service director Thelma Dalman has initiated a popular salad bar and 50-cent soup and bread lunch. She offers these as options to the subsidized meals, which cost grade schoolers $1. 25 and older students $1.50.