Schools struggling with costlier meals, survey says

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2015 - Changes to the school lunch program mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) are leaving school lunch programs across the country hungry for money, a new study says.

According to a survey released Tuesday by the School Nutrition Association, being in accordance with the new mandates such as increased fruits and vegetables, lower sodium levels, and whole grain-rich grains has financially harmed almost 70 percent of school districts surveyed. Less than 3 percent of schools report feeling a financial benefit.

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In a release, Jean Ronnei, SNA president, said to keep school nutrition programs “financially sustainable for the children they serve,” Congress needs to “provide more funding and reasonable flexibility under the most stringent rules.” 

“School nutrition standards have resulted in many positive changes, but we cannot ignore the repercussions - the financial impact of these rules threatens school meal programs and their efforts to better serve students,” Ronnei said.

Districts are responding to the financial strain by reducing staff, limiting menu variety, holding off on equipment purchases, and even dipping into reserves, according to SNA. In a release, the group cited USDA data that estimates states and school districts will have to absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor, and administrative costs in FY 2015.

Despite any financial struggles associated with meeting the new standards, almost 99 percent of school districts have implemented the plan or plan to implement “at least one of seven listed initiatives to promote healthier choices to students.” However, 58 percent of survey respondents indicated that participation in school lunch programs is down, and 93 percent of those respondents cited “decreased student acceptance of meals” as a contributing factor for the decline.

Several survey participants said the healthier food options are of little benefit if students won't eat the meals. One respondent said the new guidelines fail to take into account “food quality, flavor, or regional cuisines.” Another noted that students “are very intolerant of mediocre tasting products” brought about by reduced sodium levels and whole grain requirements. One commenter quipped that that their school has “the healthiest garbage” because so many students are taking meals and not eating them.  

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SNA says it is supportive of “the overwhelming majority of the new rules,” but wants Congress to increase federal reimbursement for school meals an extra 35 cents - the current national reimbursement average is just over $3 - and “provide flexibility on a few of the new rules.” The HHFKA, which also covers other nutrition programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), is due for reauthorization by the end of September, giving Congress one month to address the issue once members return from August recess.


Proponents of the new standards have ranged from health advocates to the military, citing increasing childhood obesity figures as a key reason to implement changes. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one in three children are overweight or obese, accounting for about 31 million children in the school lunch program. Military leaders have also addressed Congress saying nearly one in three Americans are too overweight to serve in the military, which poses a national security threat that demands effective changes in school feeding programs.


The Administration has also stood behind the HHFKA and the changes it brought to the school lunch program. In an email to Agri-Pulse, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman cited a poll released last week by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation showing that nine out of 10 Americans support "national school nutrition standards."

"We continue to listen carefully and make adjustments as needed, but when nine out of 10 Americans believe healthier school meals are the right thing to do and we are seeing signs of reversing the obesity crisis, it's clear that now isn't the time to lower the bar on our kids' health," USDA said in a statement. 


According to SNA, the 2015 School Nutrition Trends survey was conducted in June and July 2015 with SNA members, netting responses from 1,100 district-level school nutrition professionals in 49 states. The typical respondent had 16 years of experience in the school foodservice profession and represented a diverse mix of school districts with varying enrollment and portions of students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

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Updated at 10:47 EDT to include USDA comment. 
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