Joining fellow Democrats defending the nation's school lunch program, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin sat down with students to sample cafeteria cuisine yesterday and said Republican attempts to reduce the program were unpalatable.
At a small round table at Owings Mills Elementary School, he ate tacos and Mexican corn with six students and pronounced the meal delicious.
"This guy taught me how to eat it right," Mr. Cardin said, pointing across the table at J. P. McGee, a fifth-grader who said he relies on the school lunches.
"If there were no school lunches, I probably wouldn't eat nothing but a banana a day," the 10-year-old said.
Other defenders of the program, including President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have made similar forays in recent weeks in efforts to drum up support for the program.
Democrats are attacking Republican plans to reduce funding and to change the program from an entitlement for all children who meet low-income standards to a block grant administered by the states.
Defenders of the current program say nutritional standards and money for the food would decline under the GOP plan. Republicans say billions of dollars could be saved if the annual rate of increase slows and if states take responsibility for running the program, which feeds 25 million children nationwide.
Republicans hope to bring a measure changing the program to the full House of Representatives by the end of the month as part of the "Contract with America" they endorsed during the 1994 election campaign.
"It's clear the Republicans are trying to abolish these programs that are important for children, and I oppose that," said Mr. Cardin, whose meandering 3rd District includes a large chunk of Baltimore and suburbs to the northwest and southwest.
Mr. Cardin ate and mingled with many of the 700 students at Owings Mills Elementary to get reacquainted with the lunch program, which was created almost 50 years ago after young men drafted for World War II showed signs of malnutrition.
"It's been about 35 years since I've had a school lunch. I wanted to see firsthand how it works," he said.
About 25 percent of Baltimore County's 100,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Owings Mills Elementary, about half of the students qualify. Students there use electronic debit cards to pay for their meals.
There are actually two federal subsidies to school lunches. The government makes cash and commodities available to local school systems to help pay for lunches.
In Baltimore County, that brings the basic cost to students down to $1.50.
In addition, students who meet low-income standards pay less than the basic cost. A child from a four-person household with an income below $19,270 qualifies for a free lunch. Those with incomes of up to $27,380 can buy lunch for 40 cents.
Looking at a 35-cent carton of milk, Mr. Cardin said he was startled by the increase in prices since his day as a student.
"You know how much milk cost when I went to school?" he asked the youngsters at his table.
He held up two fingers. "Two cents. Two cents!"
That's not all that startled him.
"One of the things I asked, that I found was very telling, is what would happen if this wasn't here?" he said.
"We wouldn't have anything to eat," said fifth-grader Patrick Peterkin, 10. "Our parents would have to pay for it, and they wouldn't have enough money to pay their bills."
Patrick's neighbor, Francis Moats, 11, said he sometimes brings his lunch and sometimes buys the school lunch. Fifth-grader Julie Fitchett said she usually brings lunch from home.