The government can buy and serve its employes tacos, blintzes, Italian sausage, Irish soda bread and soul food on special occasions, if portions are small and are "ethnic awareness samples" rather than a plate of food.

That is the official word from the General Accounting Office, the government's expense-account court-of-last resort. As the fiscal watchdog of Congress, GAO gets all the accounting hot potatoes, ranging from multimillion-dollar cost overruns to who pays for paper hats at the annual office party.

The case in point, "Army--Food Served at Cultural Awareness Celebration," involves a bill run up last year for $350 worth of ethnic food items, plus another $40 for plastic plates and forks with which to eat same. It seems the Oakland Army Base has a three-day ethnic heritage festival every year as part of the celebration of Humanity Week. Part of the time is devoted to preparing and ingesting various items that make up our rich cultural food heritage.

Participants bought lunch, but got free "ethnic" snacks.

But when the tab was presented, an Army official said he didn't think the taxpayers ought to pay the bill. Nobody wanted to make a decision. The case rattled through various Army commands and eventually landed at the Pentagon, which took one look and fired it over to the GAO.

GAO in the past has told agencies they cannot expect the taxpayers to finance meals for U.S. personnel. It has even balked at paying for coffee at staff meetings, and munchies for federal jurors. There have been numerous GAO rulings on the subject. Most ended with the person who ordered the food and drinks getting stuck with the bill.

In this case, GAO said, things are different since it is government policy to support ethnic cultural events.

"Where food samples are served as part of a formal ethnic awareness program, and are intended to increase employe awareness of, and appreciation for, the cultural heritage being celebrated, we believe that samples may be an authorized part of the agency's Equal Employment Opportunity program."

As for the food served at the Oakland celebration, GAO said, " . . . since the food to be paid for from appropriated funds is referred to as 'samples' and was provided as a separate event from the lunch and since only an average of $35 was to be provided for the cost of each of the 10 ethnic dishes to be samples, it appears from the portion size and other circumstances of its consumption that the food was not provided as a meal or snack."

Since the tasties were for a special event, and since portions were "samples" as opposed to a meal, the GAO concluded "we would not be required to object to the use of appropriated funds for the foodstuffs, plastic plates and cutlery involved."

In other words, pay the man, Sam!