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Proposal May Limit Cambridge Food Services

By Sewell Chan

A House Republican proposal to consolidate a broad range of federal nutrition programs into one threatens to severely limit the food services thousands of Cantabrigians receive each year.

The Personal Responsibility Act (PRA)--part of the Republicans' Contract with America--would eliminate all major federal nutrition programs, including food stamps, school lunch and breakfast programs, elderly meals, "Meals on Wheels" and the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children(WIC).

However, Governor William F. Weld '66 said yesterday at a brown bag lunch at the Kennedy School that the state would step in to make sure some of the programs continued to be funded.

"School lunches and school break-fasts is something where we're not going to leave kids in the lurch," Weld said.

While the governor said he agreed with the proposed consolidation of the entitlements into a single block grant, he added that the state could increase funding to keep the programs at current levels.

"I find amounts up to $100 million all the time," Weld said. "We're going to be able to address the funding needs of high-profile programs like these."

Several Programs Threatened

In place of the current entitlement programs, the Republican measure would substitute a single block grant whose annual appropriation would be determined by Congress.

Entitlements are guaranteed to all citizens who qualify, usually measured through income guidelines. Appropriations are fixed and can be exhausted once spending limits are reached.

This could have two effects. The plan would give Boston much more control over the regulation and administration of the nutrition programs. If the Republicans' call for a five-percent cut is met, the city could expect a sharp reduction in both services and the number of residents receiving them.

In addition, the proposal would remove federal nutrition guidelines for administering the programs and allow states to determine their own standards.

At stake in Cambridge is the WIC program, which provides neo-natal food and milk, nutritional advice and health counseling to 1,673 Cambridge residents and an additional 952 people in six other towns.

Also threatened by cuts are the city's school lunch and breakfast programs, which provided 2,841 free or reduced-price meals in 1994. About three-fourths of all Cambridge elementary and high school students qualify for the exemptions.

An array of meals programs--including free meals for the elderly and homeless--may also face reductions.

'No Flexibility'

Locally, the City Council held a public hearing Monday where a range of city officials testified to the expected effects of the nutrition cuts.

"The block grant will be done just on the basis of, 'We're going to appropriate so much money, and it has to be enough,'" said former may-or Alice K. Wolf, co-chair of the Cambridge Kids' Council, in an interview yesterday.

"It will not in any way correlate with what needs are," Wolf added. "It will correlate with what someone's budget needs are."

"None of the provisions that now currently exist in WIC would exist under the PRA," said Ellen S. Teller, associate director for government affairs for the Washington-based Food Research Action Center. "By block-granting them the states will get x amount of dollars to run programs and they won't get any more."

Teller said the Republican plan gives state governments too much discretion over how to disburse their funds.

For instance, under the PRA states could simplyincrease food stamps for pregnant women at theexpense of other programs such as WIC, accordingto Teller.

Supporters of the programs say the proposalfails to account for recessions or naturaldisasters, since the revamped programs would havea fixed spending limit.

"You have no flexibility to changes in theeconomy and the environment, coupled with nonutritional standards," Teller said. "It really isa double-whammy."

Theoretically the consolidation of the programswould not require a cut in funding, but theRepublican leaders' proposal calls for both afive-percent reduction in the nutrition programsand a cap on future increases.

"The history of block grants is that the peoplepropose this largely to reduce the share they putin," Wolf said. "It's highly unlikely next yearthat they would raise [the appropriation] forinflation or for need."

"WIC could be ended," Annette S. Zucco, programdirector of Cambridge WIC, said in an interviewyesterday. "They're just going to lump us into oneprogram and say 'Do it.' There won't be anystandards."

Though WIC currently gives food vouchers towomen, Zucco said the proposal might replace thecoupons with cash. "If people get cash, who knowswhat they're going to do with [it], or what typesof food purchases they'll make?" Zucco asked."Often people have to choose between paying theirheating bill and buying food."

The Republican proposal is part of a largereffort to reduce welfare programs, and HouseSpeaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has repeatedlycriticized entitlement programs as leading to a"culture" of dependency.

But Zucco tried to distance WIC from welfare.

"The food programs have been around for so manyyears, and the government doesn't spend a lot ofmoney on them to begin with," she said. "WIC can'tbe any more efficient than what it is [now]. Tolump it into welfare reform is not reallyappropriate."

Effective and Efficient Use'

Spokespersons for the Republican members of theHouse Agriculture Committee--through which the PRAmust pass before going before Congress--said theact and welfare reform are still in preliminarystages.

"You're putting the cart before the horse,"said Pete Jeffries, spokesperson for Rep. BillEmerson (D-Mo.). "Right now we're holdinghearings; we want to hear the testimony from thevarious witnesses."

Jeffries emphasized "three buzzwords":consolidation, integration and automation.

"Collectively, they would lead to moreeffective and efficient use of tax dollars as wellas delivery of services," the aide said.

But Fred Berman, a planner for the humanservices department, disputed the cost of thefederal nutrition programs compared to the totalfederal budget.

"The entitlement programs are a drop in thebucket," Berman said. "You have priorities. Ifpriorities are to make sure that people don't gohungry, then that's something that you make sureyou fund."

Jeffries said the nutrition programs are partof a larger, inefficient welfare system.

"Bill Emerson has believed that the welfaresystem is known more as a maintenance system thatis not conducive to getting people up, off and outof the welfare track."

An aide to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole(R-Kan.) said Dole had not yet signed on to theHouse proposal.

"The bottom line is that Sen. Dole is notbacking it at the moment," said the aide, whospoke on condition of anonymity. The aide said theinitiative was primarily a House effort.

Even if federal cuts to the nutrition programsoccur, the state could account for the shortfall,as Weld said.

The city may indeed have to rely on Beacon Hillif the PRA passes, but Wolf said she preferredfederal support to remain in place.

"When the federal government pulls back, we'renot in a position to supplant what they've takenaway," Wolf said. "The federal government has muchmore of a capacity to raise funds progressivelyand place money where it's needed.

For instance, under the PRA states could simplyincrease food stamps for pregnant women at theexpense of other programs such as WIC, accordingto Teller.

Supporters of the programs say the proposalfails to account for recessions or naturaldisasters, since the revamped programs would havea fixed spending limit.

"You have no flexibility to changes in theeconomy and the environment, coupled with nonutritional standards," Teller said. "It really isa double-whammy."

Theoretically the consolidation of the programswould not require a cut in funding, but theRepublican leaders' proposal calls for both afive-percent reduction in the nutrition programsand a cap on future increases.

"The history of block grants is that the peoplepropose this largely to reduce the share they putin," Wolf said. "It's highly unlikely next yearthat they would raise [the appropriation] forinflation or for need."

"WIC could be ended," Annette S. Zucco, programdirector of Cambridge WIC, said in an interviewyesterday. "They're just going to lump us into oneprogram and say 'Do it.' There won't be anystandards."

Though WIC currently gives food vouchers towomen, Zucco said the proposal might replace thecoupons with cash. "If people get cash, who knowswhat they're going to do with [it], or what typesof food purchases they'll make?" Zucco asked."Often people have to choose between paying theirheating bill and buying food."

The Republican proposal is part of a largereffort to reduce welfare programs, and HouseSpeaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has repeatedlycriticized entitlement programs as leading to a"culture" of dependency.

But Zucco tried to distance WIC from welfare.

"The food programs have been around for so manyyears, and the government doesn't spend a lot ofmoney on them to begin with," she said. "WIC can'tbe any more efficient than what it is [now]. Tolump it into welfare reform is not reallyappropriate."

Effective and Efficient Use'

Spokespersons for the Republican members of theHouse Agriculture Committee--through which the PRAmust pass before going before Congress--said theact and welfare reform are still in preliminarystages.

"You're putting the cart before the horse,"said Pete Jeffries, spokesperson for Rep. BillEmerson (D-Mo.). "Right now we're holdinghearings; we want to hear the testimony from thevarious witnesses."

Jeffries emphasized "three buzzwords":consolidation, integration and automation.

"Collectively, they would lead to moreeffective and efficient use of tax dollars as wellas delivery of services," the aide said.

But Fred Berman, a planner for the humanservices department, disputed the cost of thefederal nutrition programs compared to the totalfederal budget.

"The entitlement programs are a drop in thebucket," Berman said. "You have priorities. Ifpriorities are to make sure that people don't gohungry, then that's something that you make sureyou fund."

Jeffries said the nutrition programs are partof a larger, inefficient welfare system.

"Bill Emerson has believed that the welfaresystem is known more as a maintenance system thatis not conducive to getting people up, off and outof the welfare track."

An aide to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole(R-Kan.) said Dole had not yet signed on to theHouse proposal.

"The bottom line is that Sen. Dole is notbacking it at the moment," said the aide, whospoke on condition of anonymity. The aide said theinitiative was primarily a House effort.

Even if federal cuts to the nutrition programsoccur, the state could account for the shortfall,as Weld said.

The city may indeed have to rely on Beacon Hillif the PRA passes, but Wolf said she preferredfederal support to remain in place.

"When the federal government pulls back, we'renot in a position to supplant what they've takenaway," Wolf said. "The federal government has muchmore of a capacity to raise funds progressivelyand place money where it's needed.

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