Washington area school officials say the budget cuts Congress approved this week will almost double the price of school lunches next year and could force some systems to abandon the national program that currently helps feed 265,000 area children.
"If [Reagan] got everything he wanted, it will be devastating," says Bailey McCrery, the director of food services for Arlington County public schools. "I think you would see the school lunch program disappear."
Reagan administration officials, who won permission to cut federal school lunch subsidies by almost half, deny that they will scuttle the 35-year-old program that dispenses both cash and surplus food to schools. Their only aim, they say, is to stop taxpayers from subsidizing the lunches of middle- and upper-income children.
"Nearly 30 percent of child-feeding federal expenditures serve nonneedy students," Richard Lyng, deputy secretary of agriculture, told a House subcommittee in March. "The federal subsidy becomes a form of income assistance to families with middle and upper incomes."
Administration officials say their cuts won't stop an estimated 70,250 area childred from poor families from getting lunches free or at reduced prices. But they do agree the cuts could bring major changes in the affluent Washington suburbs.
Fairfax County officials say the cuts would drive the price of an elementary school lunch from 60 cents to $1.20 and push high school lunches from 70 cents to $1.40.
Other area school administrators predict similar increases and say needy students also will suffer because the higher prices may force large numbers of students to desert cafeteria lines for brown-bag lunches and fast-food eateries. If the number of students buying lunches drops sharply, the officials fear that their cost per lunch will rise even higher and possibly force additional price increases.
"The impact is going to be so much greater than anyone realizes," says Dorothy VanEgmond Pannell, food service director for Fairfax County, which expects to lose all but $1 million of its current $6.2 million in federal food aid. The county, one of the richest in the nation, does not put any local funds into its lunch program, and officials say it's too late to change next year's budget.
The District places $5.1 million of local money into its programs and is expecting that it probably won't suffer as much as other area jurisdiction because a higher percentage of its students qualify as needy. District officials predict only a modest increase in their lunch prices, which, at 50 cents for elementary and 60 cents for high school students, currently are the lowest of any system in the area.
Prince George's County officials say they would lose $4 million of their current $6.5 million in assistance. While officials in other jurisdictions say they cannot estimate their losses, they are fearful of the prospects.
"We're looking at the virtual dismantling of the program," says Joanne Styer, the food service director for Montgomery County schools. "If we lose our subsidy, we will have no choice, but to pull out of the program," says Kay Kennedy, food service director for Falls Church schools.
Local and national school officials do not dispute administration arguments that the current program helps more than the needy. But many argue that the cuts will have a serious ripple effect. A representative of the American School Food Service Association testified at the same hearing as Lyng that 35,000 to 40,000 schools would drop out of the federal lunch program as a result of the budget cuts, closing cafeterias to millions of students who receive a free or reduced-price lunch.
"In some schools there may not be any meals next year," says Lynn Parker, a nutritionist with the Food and Research Action Center, a Washington-based public interest law firm. "Poor children are really going to suffer. They'll be left in the lurch."
The Action Center is just one of many public interest groups that have lobbied in support of the school lunch program. Ironically, many of those same groups provided the most outspoken criticism of the lunch program in the past. "There are flaws in the program, and sometimes the food is not as appealing as it could be, but it is still food in children's stomachs," says Parker.
The federal program grew out of concern over the surprising amount of malnutrition discovered among draft-age Americans during World War II. In 1947 the federal government provided cash and food commodities to feed an estimated 6 million students. Today 27 million students participate in the program, which in the 1950s made milk available to school students for as little as one cent a half-pint.
Fairfax's Pannell got an advance taste of how sensitive an issue school lunches are last month when she sent home school menus predicting a doubling of prices next year.
"I got a lot of calls from parents on that," says Pannell. Some wanted to know what could be done to lower prices. Others accused her of perpetrating a political maneuver. But Pannell says she was only doing her job.
"I don't want to be the bad guy," says Pannell, who expects to be swamped with complaints in September. "I won't take the blame for it."