A Mail Scan on the Hill

Writing to your representatives in Congress is not what it used to be. After the 2001 anthrax attack on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate began screening lawmakers' mail off-site, hoping to identify and contain anything nastier than the choice words some constituents pepper their representatives with from time to time.

These days about 30 House offices are taking it a step further. Under a year-old pilot program, Pitney Bowes Inc., a mailing equipment and document management company, is digitally scanning, encoding and transmitting constituent mail. The letter seeking help with Social Security or complaining about spending may never arrive in the office to which it was sent. Instead, lawmakers receive an image of it as an attachment to e-mail.

"It's a picture of the letter," said Michael J. Critelli, the company's chairman and chief executive. "Increasingly they are making the choice not to receive the hard copy."

The digital mail service helps protect against dangers such as anthrax or letter bombs, Critelli said. It also makes it easier for congressional offices to route the mail quickly. There is enough federal funding to provide the service to as many as 75 House offices, he said. All they have to do is sign up.

Oh, and about all that mail piling up?

"We can either destroy it or warehouse it," Critelli said.

Vending, Vidi, Vici

Children in many of America's public schools are not learning how to eat well: Nine out of 10 schools sold junk food to students in the 2003-2004 school year, providing stiff competition for the nominally nutritious meals served in the cafeteria, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Vending machines were available to almost all high school and middle school students.

And guess what else: The number of adolescents who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980, an increase partly due to poor nutrition, the report said, citing studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program only reimburse schools for meals that adhere to federal nutritional guidelines. But the junk food sold at school snack bars and vending machines -- often a source of big revenue for schools -- need not meet such standards. High schools that raised the most revenue pulled in more than $125,000 a year through junk food sales, the GAO report found.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who, along with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Calif.), requested the GAO report, plans to introduce legislation to establish nutritional standards for all food sold in schools.

-- Christopher Lee