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SCHOOLS MAY GET 4 YEARS TO OVERHAUL LUNCHES

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School cafeterias would have four years to switch to leaner and healthier menus under rules about to be announced by the Agriculture Department.

A proposal to overhaul the school lunch program, requiring its meals to follow the government's own guidelines for proper nutrition, is to be announced Wednesday. But the deadline for compliance won't be until the 1998-1999 school year, a USDA official said Monday.That means that a youngster entering the ninth grade next fall will graduate from high school with the current standard cafeteria fare, found to provide up to 38 percent of its calories from fat.

That's too long, said the consumer group Public Voice, which contended it shouldn't take more than a year for schools to begin serving meals that get no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat.

"If that's the case, then we think that that's unfortunate," said Tricia Obester, spokeswoman for the consumer group, which has long advocated an overhaul of the school lunch program.

Public Voice was headed until last year by Ellen Haas, the assistant secretary of agriculture who is to announce the changes.

Kevin Dando, a spokesman for the American School Food Service Association, said the lengthy deadline "will help those schools that aren't as far along as they should be to meet these regulations."

The government's nutritional guidelines say people should get no more than 30 percent of their total daily calories from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat, the bad kind that can clog arteries and cause heart attacks.

The guidelines also recommend that people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and cut their salt intake.