LAST YEAR, the ketchup-as-a-vegetable controversy brought a lot of attention to the school lunch program. This year, without attendant public furor, school lunch officials face a battle bigger than budget cuts. The Future: New Federalism The Future: New Federalism

The big worry among many who watch child-feeding programs -- school breakfast, summer meals, special milk and child-care feeding in addition to school lunches -- is that the administration is asking governors to assume these public programs as state responsibilities in keeping with the president's "new federalism."

"New federalism" would give the states more financial and administrative responsibility for all public programs, and many think it would strike a death blow to such meal plans as school lunch and breakfast.

Last spring, the Agriculture Department took the first step by asking Congress to give a lump sum of money to each state designated for nothing more specific than "child feeding." The state could spend all of the money on school breakfast, for instance, and abandon support for child care, special milk and summer meals. Or it could divide the money equally among the programs.

The proposal didn't mention school lunches, but members of Congress believe the situation is serious enough to reiterate support for a federally supported school lunch program. Reps. William Goodling (R-Pa.) and Carl Perkins (D-Ky.) have joined 100 co-sponsors to resolve that "a uniform national guarantee of nutrition should continue through federal leadership . . . the responsibility for federal child nutrition programs should not be turned back to the states."

Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), plans to introduce a similar resolution when the senators return from recess, according to an aide. The National PTA, the American School Food Service Association and the National Farmers Union (a coalition of agriculture organizations), laud this action.

While a resolution doesn't bind anybody legally, it sends a message -- and Goodling says in this case a strong message -- to the administration that Congress wants to keep the school lunch program under the federal eye. If the federal government does not reimburse school systems for student lunches, said Goodling, "state and city governments won't pay the cash to support the program" and school lunch "will fall flat on its face. You've got a system that works and works well -- why play with it?" he added. The Past: Since Last Fall

Meanwhile, cuts incurred last fall left the school lunch program about $1 billion poorer. The USDA's goal was to save money while allowing individual programs "more flexibility."

The USDA tried to change meal plans in order to save money for food service directors. One suggestion was to count ketchup toward a meal's vegetable allotment, an idea that got little support.

Last spring they put in effect a plan that allows schools to let students refuse two of five foods offered at each lunch, and yet get paid as if the student ate the entire meal.

In addition, reduced paper work means program directors should use 11 million fewer hours to fill out all the forms the USDA needs this year, according to one agriculture spokesman. This should let them concentrate more on serving good food and less on processing paper, she says.

Third, the law requires the USDA to hold schools accountable for the meals they serve free or at reduced prices to needy families. Attempting to discourage fradulent applications, the USDA now requires applicants to give their social security numbers when they apply for reduced-price meals. This practice, however, has been challenged in California on grounds that it is an invasion of privacy. The New School Lunch

If anything plagues the programs right now, it's making less money go further while enticing more students to buy school lunches.

About 3 1/2 million fewer students are buying lunches this year; about 500,000 have quit eating school breakfasts. Some attend schools that have dropped the program, others have just quit buying school meals. Advocacy groups contend families are dropping out because they can't afford to buy lunch. But USDA officials say they are subsidizing fewer people who can afford to buy the lunch.

Yet existing programs depend on student participation -- every time a meal is served, the school is reimbursed. No students, no meals, no reimbursement, no school lunch.

One way to ensure the future of school lunch is to maintain or increase the number of meals served. Joanne Styer, director of the Montgomery County school food service program, has discovered that she'll serve more pizza than she will meat loaf. She says food service directors are beginning to look at the student as a customer and not as a captive audience, and that's helping sales.

The Child Nutrition Forum -- a coalition of 10 groups including the American School Food Service Association, the National Grange and the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- sponsored a seminar aimed at helping school lunch directors deal with their limitations so they can save money and increase sales.

Studies show that lunchrooms can save money by offering more choices to the students. More students buy lunch if they know they can choose what they eat. In addition, when the lunchroom becomes an integral part of the school, more lunches are sold: Curtains sewn by home economics students and murals painted by art students increase student enthusiasm for the room and the lunch. And, says one worker, "We celebrate everything we can think of" to make eating fun for the students.

But participation is not the last word on food service costs. Schools are learning to stretch their resources by using food the government gives them -- and Uncle Sam is long on dairy products these days. While macaroni and cheese bit the dust in Montgomery County, says Styer, cheese shows up on grilled sandwiches -- daily in some schools -- and on the ubiquitous pizza. Cheese, chicken and turkey appear on popular chef salads. Fairfax County schools serve commodity turkey in little fried nuggets with a sauce that uses government honey.

Money goes further when several school districts combine to make bulk purchases of paper and other storable products. And many school systems are attempting to buy directly from farmers, which lowers food costs and improves the quality of the food (thus enticing student participation).

With less money, school lunch workers need to learn about outside resources and develop allies among local businesses, government and school board members. Schools need to merchandise their meal programs, says Lynn Parker, nutritionist with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), an advocacy agency that supports the federal school lunch program. "A case really has to be made for school lunch and breakfast as part of the education process," says Parker, not only because students learn better when they are fed, but because nutrition lessons can be integrated with the meal program.

As a result, school systems learn unconventional ways of involving the community. Some invite school board members to spend a day at the school, emphasizing school meals. Some invite area realtors -- those selling houses to parents who ask "what are the schools like?" -- to see, among other things, the lunchroom facilities. Others ask labor unions to educate the public about changes in school lunch application requirements. Since the federal government no longer replaces or repairs kitchen equipment, some lunchroom managers approach local businesses for help.

These projects not only fill immediate needs, says Parker, they involve the community in the school lunch program. She believes that a community that knows about the program will always vote to keep it.

Opponents of "new federalism" say that a child's nutritional needs do not vary from state to state. With community participation, student and employe support, the future of school lunch seems guaranteed, they contend, but only with continued federal support.