UNSAVORY FOOD FIGHT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The fax machine in The Sun's Washington bureau made its familiar whine, then produced a unique, unsigned missive:

"Please stop lying about school lunches," the fax-sender wrote by hand. "Thank you."

In the hysteria that has passed for debate on the Republican proposal to trim the school lunch program, this note, sent by a follower of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, was a mild salvo.

At least this critic said please and thank you.

The usual rhetoric in this debate has been unduly harsh even by the nasty partisan standards of modern Washington. In press releases, sound bites and photo shoots, each side has attacked the motives and basic humanity of the other. Character assassination, threats and name-calling have been the norm in the fight over a program never considered controversial -- until now.

The National School Lunch Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946. One reason cited for it was national security -- during World War II, U.S. Army officers were dismayed by the number of draftees who failed their physicals because they were undernourished.

Today, some 25 million American school children receive TC subsidized breakfast or lunch in the nation's 93,000 public schools.

The poorest children qualify for a free lunch, subsidized by the government in cash and commodities at a cost to taxpayers of $1.75 cents per lunch. The next level of support is for a reduced-price lunch, at an average cost of about $1.35. Those two categories make up about half of the subsidized lunches. The other half are subsidized at a rate of only 17 cents a meal.

"It's a program that works," said President Clinton.

Republican House members don't exactly disagree, but as part of a large-scale welfare restructuring promised by their "Contract with America," they looked at childhood food subsidies, along with everything else, to see if they could lower federal expenditures, give states more say-so and curb the growth of anti-poverty programs.

Their plan, unveiled on Feb. 22, would take five existing programs -- the school lunch program, the school breakfast program, a federal milk program, a federal child care program and a summer supplemental nutritional program -- combine their existing budgets of $6.5 billion and turn the money over to the states, along with to-be-determined increases estimated at between 2.5 and 4.5 percent each year.

"The school lunch program is not being cut," says Keith Appell, a consultant promoting the Republican contract. "The only thing being cut is the federal government bureaucracy that administers it."

A review of the proposal, however, suggests that the actual ramifications of the Republican proposal might be more far-reaching:

* Despite annual increases, many budget experts doubt that the block grants would keep pace with needs. The Census Bureau predicts an increase in school children of between 5 pecent and 8 percent by 2000, an increase not taken into account by the proposed annual increases, which would do little more than cover inflation on food prices.

* Governors would only be required to use 80 percent of the block grant on childhood nutritional programs; they could shift 20 percent to other needs.

* Nutritional standards, the underpinning of the law, are eliminated in the Republican plan, creating a temptation for states to serve less nutritious food -- or just less food -- as they make do with fewer dollars.

* The plan puts the states in competition with each other for a single pot of money and would eventually shift money from poor states to richer ones. Right now, for instance, the average cost spent on a meal in Mississippi is $1.25 cents. In Maryland, it is $1.09. This discrepancy is because many more of the youngsters in Mississippi schools are eligible for free or reduced lunches. But under the GOP formula for computing the block grants, eventually this gap would narrow -- leaving Mississippi to make up the difference itself.

* The formulas, set in advance, cannot account for regional recessions or other emergencies that increase a state's needs for school lunch money.

"The quickest it could be adjusted under this plan is a year in the future," says Agriculture Department spokesman Neal Flieger.

Republicans maintain that these predictions are overly dire -- and that squeezing the administrative costs would actually yield more money for children's meals. But those costs don't appear to be very high: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates them at about two-thirds of 1 percent of the programs under consideration.

Furthermore, the Republican plan mandates an additional record-keeping burden, one that would require school officials to keep track of the immigrant status of kids receiving free or subsidized lunches.

For all these reasons, anti-poverty and childhood nutrition groups were expected to protest the GOP plan to the White House and the Democrats in Congress. This was done, but instead of arguing against the Republican plan by focusing on exactly where they believed it was flawed, the Democrats did so with campaign-style attacks that were long on emotion and short on facts.

Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services called the Republican ideas part of "a pattern of cruelty to children."

Mr. Clinton went to a public elementary school where he ate lunch with five children and then said the Republicans want to gut the program to finance "tax cuts for upper-income Americans."

And tomorrow, Democratic House and Senate members will gather at the Capitol to serve lunches to kids in a media event designed to demonstrate the Republicans' "war on children."

"If the Republicans have their way, two million school kids would hungry," states a Democratic Party press advisory.

Republican leaders have been incensed by these tactics, and have been returning the fire in kind:

"Scaring needy schoolchildren is low even for this White House," snapped Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio.

""I am embarrassed for them to make the argument that the governors of the states would take the money and let children starve," said Republican Party chief Haley Barbour. "This is all farce. This is all posturing."

Mr. Limbaugh asked his loyal listeners to bombard the press with complaints about their characterizations of the GOP proposal -- and many complied. But even key Republican strategists admit that the Democrats have hit on an effective issue.

Some liberal critics of the plan, however, wonder if the Democrats have spent too much time nailing the Republicans, and too little actually marshaling the arguments against the GOP program to stop it from passing when the House takes it up on Tuesday.

David Super, general counsel of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is a strong critic of the GOP proposal. But he does not sling around phrases like "starving children" or attack Republican motives. In fact, he doesn't even believe the House Republicans intended to hurt poor kids in poor states.

To him, the moral of the story is simpler and less Machiavellian.

"This is what happens," he cautions, "when you try to write legislation at this kind of speed."

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