Fewer students buy school lunch under new nutrition guidelines

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 5, 2014 - A new report from the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) finds that 1.2 million students stopped purchasing school lunches over the last three school years - just as USDA implemented its new nutritional standard.

The report gives credence to conservative lawmakers' complaints that the department overreached in cutting the calories and sodium content of program lunches and breakfasts while increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Lets Talk Food

GAO's report, which is based on online national surveys of state child nutrition directors and visits to eight school districts last spring, found that the changes to the lunch program were a major factor in the decline of school lunch purchases. “[A]lmost all states reported through GAO's national survey that obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging,” according to the report.

The GAO said some students, often those in high school, decided to stop purchasing school lunches because they felt they were getting less food bang for their buck. The Health Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), passed in 2010, required USDA to develop more stringent nutritional guidelines for its school lunch programs. GAO acknowledged, however, that it did not “validate specific information that (nutrition) directors reported through our survey,” meaning the some of the information used for the purposes of the report was anecdotal.

In fiscal 2012, the government spent $11.6 billion on the National School Lunch Program, serving meals to 31.6 million children each month. A 1.6 million drop in total lunches sold, then, accounted for a 3.7 percent decrease in school lunch consumption across the system. 

Investigators, however, found that program participation is “likely” to improve over time as students become accustomed to the kinds of food now served in schools. Five of the districts visited by GAO said they expected students to adjust to the new food offerings. Three others said they hoped USDA would continue to provide nutrition education support “to help make the transition to healthier school meals more successful,” GAO wrote.

But South Dakota Republican Rep. Kristi Noem - who was among lawmakers requesting the GAO's review of the lunch program - indicated she was unsatisfied with the report's findings.

“Over the last few years, I've heard from a number of South Dakota schools who were concerned about the new regulations' impact on their students and bottom lines,” Noem said in a statement. “[The] report validates many of those concerns.  If families can afford it, more and more are sending their kids to school with a sack lunch.  But where finances are tight, kids are staying in the program, which doesn't always allow them to get the energy-rich foods they need.”

In early January, Noem and other National School Lunch Program (NSLP) critics scored a win when USDA revised the rules limiting the amount of meats and grains allowed under the program. Schools are now allowed to serve bigger portions of meats and grains, though they must still stay within calorie limits. Still, many worry that USDA's HHFKA implementation amounts to federal micromanagement of students' eating habits.

Meanwhile, USDA has agreed to clarify the documentation of program compliance documents and will “systematically assess” states' need for information to improve program oversight.

The federal government should be more pleased with another study, released by Harvard School of Public Health researchers Tuesday, which found that more students are eating fruits and vegetables, thanks to the new USDA standards. Researchers collected plate waste data from 1,030 students in an urban, low-income school district before and after USDA implemented its guidelines and found 23 percent more fruits were made available to students and vegetable consumption increased by 16.2 percent. Though fruit consumption as a percentage did not increase, more students selected fruit overall, so, “overall, more fruit was consumed post-implementation,” the researchers wrote. However, high levels of fruit and vegetable waste continued to be a problem, the researchers found. Students discarded roughly 60 percent to 75 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruits on their trays. “Schools must focus on improving food quality and palatability to reduce waste,” the researchers said in a release.

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