A consumer group criticized school cafeterias Thursday for serving lunches so loaded with fat, salt and sugar that they fail to meet decade-old government dietary guidelines and new ones by the surgeon general.

With schools gearing up for the new academic year, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy issued a report that urged the National School Lunch Program to serve the dual role of giving nutritious meals to students while establishing healthy eating habits.Executive Director Ellen Haas noted that Surgeon General C. Everett Koop recently documented five of the 10 leading causes of death are linked directly to poor eating habits, such as too much fat and sodium and too little fiber.

Moreover, Koop's report came nearly a decade after the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services issued dietary guidelines that stressed similar precautions.

Haas complained that the government has done little to ensure nutritional guidelines are followed in the school lunch program. "Many schools around the country continue to serve lunches loaded with saturated fat," she said.

For examples, Haas described how school cafeterias often top fatty hot dogs with chili, offer ham and cheese toppings for a simple baked potato, and frequently have fried foods on the menu.

"Not only has (the government) not seen to it that schools cut back on fat, but many of the foods provided to the schools under the commodity purchase program contribute to the high-fat menus served," she said.

Suzanne Harris of the USDA Food and Consumer Services agreed that school lunches should be consistent with dietary guidelines but stressed that scientific evidence does not support setting absolute daily intake levels of sugar, fat or sodium for children.

Harris said, "Contrary to what is implied by Public Voice, the surgeon general recently issued a report stating, `No data are available from prospective studies to demonstrate that feeding cholesterol-lowering diets to children can either support normal growth and development or reduce later heart disease rates.' "

To improve school lunches, the consumer education and advocacy organization recommended:

-The Agriculture Department establish limits on the amount of fat, sodium, and sugar in daily lunches and translate these limits into menus.

-The department establish a national food service management institute to provide technical assistance and training for food service providers.

-School lunches be part of a school-wide effort to improve the health of youth, with funding restored to the Nutrition Education and Training Program.

-The government study the feasibility of reinstituting a ban on "junk foods" on school grounds.