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Republicans nibble at the lunch subsidy

Lucy Hodges reports as school meals funding slips off the federal menu. Almost 50 years of American social policy has been voted away by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives which intends to replace school lunches with block grants to the states.

By voting to repeal the School Lunch Act, the Republicans ended a fixture of American life. The lunch programme has served subsidised meals to more than 25 million children a day since it was created in 1946.

But Republicans want to find money to pay for their proposed tax cuts and give the states discretion to design their own school lunch and breakfast programmes. Federal nutrition standards would be eliminated, with states setting their own standards.

"I am convinced that under this Bill states will have more money to spend on school lunches because we have cut unnecessary audits and paperwork," said William Goodling, chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, which made the decision in the teeth of objections from the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. There were also loud objections from Democrat members and from President Clinton..

"Here's a programme that isn't broke, that's done a world of good for millions and millions of children of all races and backgrounds across our country, and I think it would be a terrible mistake to put an end to it," the President said during a vociferous two-day debate on the measure, The reform, part of the Republicans' Contract with America, is expected to be approved by the full House, though the outlook in the Senate is less clear.

Current law allows for federal government spending on school meals to increase in hard times because anyone who meets the eligibility criteria based on family income is automatically entitled to a free lunch. The House proposes to end that guarantee.

Until now the school lunch programme, which cost $4.9 billion (Pounds 3 billion) last year. has enjoyed cross-party support. It was introduced after concern over the large number of army recruits in World War II who had health problems related to poor nutrition.

It provides a subsidy for all school lunches, and gives extra financial help for the poor children whose meals are free, or priced at 40 cents (about 25p) or less. Just over half all school meals are provided free or at reduced cost.

Democrats say that the replacement of the school lunch and other nutrition programmes with block grants could leave the states $7 billion short.

The changes were approved in the week the Republicans celebrated their fiftieth day in control of Congress and were accompanied by swingeing cuts from other committees. Each of the budgets of the National Endowment for Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts was chopped by $5 million.

The 1996 budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was cut by 15 per cent. But the biggest reduction was of $4.2 billion in the labour, education and health departments - spending that had already been approved.

Republican committee members voted to cut dozens of youth training and education programmes, including Goals 2000, President Clinton's plan for raising standards in schools. They chopped Head Start, the pre-school programme, by $3.5 billion.

Other programmes facing elimination are the drug-free-schools programme ($481.9 million), and an education project for homeless young people ($28. 8 million).

The Republicans expect to push through the cuts because they have majorities in both Houses, but they cannot count on President Clinton. He could always veto them.

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