(Feb. 4) The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fiscal 2004 budget offered nutrition advocates little hope for new initiatives and increased funds for expanding fruit and vegetables in school feeding programs.

What’s more, a Bush administration proposal to more carefully certify recipients of free and reduced-price lunches was criticized as heavy-handed by one nutrition advocate in early February.

The 2004 budget included a record of $42.9 billion for domestic food assistance programs, a $1.7 billion increase over 2003, according to a USDA news release. The budget request supports an estimated 21.6 million food stamp participants; a record level of 7.8 million low-income, nutritionally at risk Women Infants and Children participants; and, an average of 29 million schoolchildren each day in the School Lunch program.

The USDA said greater emphasis will be directed toward improving program operations and outcomes in terms of the nutritional status of recipients, particularly to help address America’s problems with obesity.

For 2004, the USDA said child nutrition programs are funded at a level that will support anticipated participation and food costs. In the text of the budget message, the USDA said it continues to work with states to improve the appeal and nutritional quality of school meals and to help schools serve meals that are consistent with dietary guidelines.

Noting that the child nutrition programs are due to be reauthorized in 2004, the USDA indicated in its budget message that the Bush administration supports establishing a new system to improve the legitimacy of eligibility for free and reduced price meals.

Free and reduced-price meal data not only are used to allocate about $7 billion a year in meal reimbursements for school feeding programs but also are used to target about triple that amount in education grants and resources to low-income children and schools, the USDA said.

The USDA said it will certify participants and will provide financial incentives to schools serving meals that meet dietary guidelines.

However, Erik Peterson, director of public awareness and media relations for the American School Food Service Association, Alexandria, Va., said the USDA’s determination to audit recipients of free and reduced-price school lunches likely will result in nutritional losses for deserving participants. He said privacy issues and the hassle of filling out paperwork will discourage participation from some families that should receive benefits.

Peterson said Congress will take up specific initiatives related to child nutrition reauthorization in coming weeks and months.