Hearings Target Quality Of School-Lunch Programs

Critics say system discourages the use of fresh produce

THE disparity between what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends children eat and what children are actually served at school through the National School Lunch Program may soon be resolved.

During recent public hearings held in four major cities, government officials, nutrition experts, and food-service specialists gathered to discuss reforming the school-lunch program to comply with USDA's 1990 dietary guidelines, commonly known as ``the pyramid.'' Studies have shown that school lunches - not unlike the diet of the average American - are high in fat and sodium and short on fiber, fruit, and vegetables.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont has introduced a ``nutrition'' bill that would require school lunches to meet the USDA dietary guidelines. In December, Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed her support of reform in a letter to USDA Secretary Mike Espy.

Sharon Lindan, assistant director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, represents popular sentiment when she says: ``It's not enough just to feed our children. We have to feed them foods that are healthy.''

While nearly all agree that the National School Lunch program - which operates in 95 percent of the nation's schools and serves 25 million lunches every school day - is in need of overhaul, the question is: How best to do it?

``What we're really trying to do is look at the many thousands of comments that we've gotten and the testimonies of 300 witnesses,'' says Ellen Haas, assistant secretary of the USDA's Food and Consumer Services. ``It's a one-focus mission but with lots of components.''

Reform will involve education (of food-service professionals and children), training, and technical assistance, Ms. Haas says. USDA policy recommendations are due by spring.

A main focus of the hearings has been the government's price-subsidy system. Many food-service directors say this system discourages schools from purchasing fresh produce and preparing meals that comply with the government's guidelines.

Some have called for cash in lieu of federally supplied commodity foods. Such flexibility might enable schools to purchase fresh vegetables locally, rather than canned vegetables from government shelves.

Other directors and nutrition advocates call for reform within the commodities program whereby government would provide fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, Ms. Lindan says.

``We're talking about the future health and eating habits of a nation. That is worth working toward,'' says David Braff, executive vice president of Lucille Farms Inc., who spoke at the Washington hearing. As part of a pilot program started by USDA, Lucille Farms is supplying a low-fat mozzarella to top pizza - the most popular lunch entree among schoolchildren.

One issue that cannot be ignored is growing competition, Lindan cautions. Just outside many cafeteria doors, vending machines, candy stands, and fast-food outlets threaten the school-lunch program's nutritional ideals. Fast-food franchises are selling food in thousands of schools across the country, causing several schools to drop out of the school-lunch program altogether.

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