School lunch program caught in deficit downdraft

School lunch program caught in deficit downdraft – editorial

Rick Telberg

School lunch program caught in deficit downdraft

Some 3,800 elementary- and secondary-school foodservice managers may have been gathering in New Orleans two weeks ago for their annual convention, but their eyes were trained intently on Washington.

Few foodservice operators are as tied to decisions in the nation’s capital as those who participate in the National School Lunch Program, a $14 billion-a-year federal, state and local effort serving 28 million meals every school day.

But as members of the American School Food Service Association were convening in The Crescent City, key Congressional and administration figures were meeting in the District of Columbia. And the news coming out of the meeting in Washington was far from heartening.

In an effort to budge the stalled Budget Summit, the Bush administration released a new, $168 billion estimate of the federal deficit, which, if true, would activate 40-percent across-the-board spending cuts under the Gramm-Rudman Act. The new deficit estimate represented a $68 billion increase since the last one in January. And if the year’s expected cost of the savings-and-loan bailout was included, the deficit would actually total more than $231 billion.

To be sure, the school lunch program is a darling of legislators and bureaucrats alike. With food stamps, Social Security and some welfare programs, it is exempt from Gramm-Rudman’s Draconian grasp.

But like taxes, now that Bush has finally moved his lips, even the National School Lunch Program has become negotiable.

Administration budget director Richard Darman, adopting a plan that had been kicking around inside the Beltway for almost a decade, has proposed cutting the $5 billion in federal funding for the National School Lunch Program by $235 billion a year. Darman’s plan would eliminate 26-cent-per-student subsidies for rich students, defined as coming from households where the income is 2.5 times the poverty level.

The paperwork involved in screening out, for the first time, a whole category of student, would be a nightmare for school food managers. “It would add a whole new tier of red-tape,” complained Vivian Pilant, head of the ASFSA’s public-policy committee.

Indeed, the ASFSA points to estimates from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that, because parents would shun the disclosure requirements, the federal government would save $3.3 billion over five years, a far more drastic pullback than the $1.3 billion savings contemplated by the administration.

Those cutbacks would come on top of $300 million in lost supplies of free cheese, non-fat dry milk and butter that evaporated after the 1985 Farm Bill slashed subsidies to dairy farmers by about $15 billion. Pilant figures the reductions in dairy supplies added a nickel to the cost of every meal served. Some administrators have found, perhaps ironically, that it is cheaper to fill a taco or top a pizza with meat at about 99 cents a pound than with cheese at about $2.99 a pound.

ASFSA policy asserts school lunches are part of a national educational effort.

As their chief lobbyist, Marshall Matz, said: “Hungry children can’t learn. And illiterate adults can’t produce. And that’s the first step to competing with Japan and now a Greater Europe.”

But politically the National School Lunch Program remains what it has been for about 50 years–a farm subsidy with a school feeding dividend.

According to Alberta Frost, a ranking official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who appeared at the ASFSA meeting, of the $1.4 billion a year in commodities that the USDA furnishes to schools, almost 60 percent of it comes in the form of surplus food that farmers could not sell except at a loss.

What the nation really needs is a comprehensive nutrition policy that would seek to, first, feed all of the nation’s hungry, whether child or adult, and second, to promote good, healthful eating, starting in the schools.

There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch. But few things would be a better investment for the nation’s peace dividend.

Unfortunately, in a political environment overshadowed by a $3 trillion national debt, there is little chance that school lunches will win much, if any, new funding to make it truly an educational program or to be extended into breakfast or child care. School foodservice directors would feel lucky if the Budget Summit ends without new cuts in the lunch program.

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