The National School Lunch Program, facing federal funding uncertainties, is again under sharp criticism for failing to provide nutritionally adequate meals for children.
In a report released Wednesday, a Washington-based consumer group charges, for the second consecutive year, that federally subsidized school meals are too high in saturated fat to ensure proper diets.
Public Voice for Food and Health Policy states that results from a recent survey of 163 schools in 41 states indicate that menu selections in school cafeterias are "high in fat" from the main course to dessert.
The $4 billion school lunch program has been considered an important tool in the battle against childhood malnutrition in this country since 1932. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the meal program, says much has been done by the agency to improve school lunches just in the past year.
Even so, the consumer advocacy group blames USDA for not providing proper nutritional guidance to school food service directors. The federal government is also faulted for not setting restrictions on overall fat content in school meals.
"Diets high in fat in childhood increase the risk of heart disease later in life," the Public Voice report states. "There is a broad consensus . . . that all Americans, including children age 2 and older, keep their fat intake to 30% of all calories consumed."
The Public Voice survey found that a lack of variety contributes to the nutritional problems in school cafeterias.
"The same high-fat options are evident," the survey found. "Pizza, hamburger and fried chicken dominate the main course options; and French fries, canned fruits packed in sugar-syrup and cakes/cookies most often complete the high-fat meal."
Susan Acker, with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service in Washington, says the agency has taken several steps to enhance the nutritional content of school lunches.
Among the measures are:
--Revised recipes distributed to 90,000 schools in hopes of cutting fat, salt and sugar in lunches.
--A reduction in the fat content of USDA surplus commodity meats provided to schools.
--Lower sodium processed foods added to school meals.
--An expanded variety of fish products, including salmon.
--The agency also limits the use of animal fats, as ingredients or cooking mediums, in the preparation of foods at the manufacturers' level and in the schools.
--Local food service officials are also urged to bake, rather than deep fry, items such as French fries and chicken.
While conceding that USDA has distributed revised recipes to schools, Public Voice found that the new formulations were not accompanied by overall menu planning advice. The lack of such information led to repetition throughout the system.
In the report's executive summary, the group urged USDA to establish a limit for fat from calories in school lunches. Public Voice also advocated increased funding for nutrition education in the classroom and an expanded role for parents in monitoring school feeding programs.
While absorbing criticism on the nutritional front, the National School Lunch Program also faces reduced federal funding.
The allocation for the free and reduced-price meals has been stagnant since 1988-1989 fiscal year and USDA administrators await the prospect of further cuts from the Bush Administration during budget negotiations with Congress this month.
Current funding stands at $4 billion for 1990-1991, or identical to the 1988-1989 level.
Participation in the program is also at a plateau, hovering around 24 million students a day for the last three years, or down from a high of 26.6 million daily participants in 1980.
Two theories exist for the drop.
The USDA's Acker said that school enrollment has flattened out in the past few years and thus limited the available number of eligible students.
However, independent observers of the program say that a decline in enrollment occurred in the fall of 1989 when USDA reduced the amount of free surplus commodities--cheese, meat, nonfat dry milk--distributed to the National School Lunch Program. In the void, local districts were forced to increase the meal prices because of rising costs. Some children's families could not afford the hike and withdrew from the program.
Students are eligible for the National School Lunch Program based on financial need and about 59% of all public school children participate. Nonprofit private schools may also apply for meal assistance if some of the student population is considered needy.
For instance, of the estimated 4.1 billion meals to be under the 1991 program, 1.7 billion will be considered free, or paid for by the federal government. Another 277,000 reduced-price meals, partially subsidized, will also be made available. The remaining two million meals will be sold mostly to students from middle-income families at full price but under the auspices of the overall program. However, children paying full price receive the benefit of those government surplus commodities that remain available.