WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2016 - More school cafeterias are using strategies to increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and other healthy choices, while expanding student access to school meals through government programs such as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), according to a new national survey of school meal program operators.
The findings are part of the School Nutrition Association (SNA)’s “School Nutrition Operations Report: The State of School Nutrition 2016,” based on survey responses from nearly 1,000 school nutrition directors nationwide.
“Just like parents, school nutrition professionals know that offering kids healthier options is only half the battle – we also have to entice them to eat those nutritious choices,” SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays said in a release. “Despite tight meal program budgets, school nutrition professionals are employing creative tactics to promote healthy menu options as they welcome students back to the school cafeteria.”
The survey found that since 2014, when the majority of updated nutrition standards for school meals were in effect, more school meal programs have launched initiatives to market healthier school food choices and increase their appeal among students. For example:
Nearly 50 percent of responding districts have implemented Farm to School initiatives (up from 37.5 percent in the 2014 survey);
72 percent employ student taste tests or sampling (up from 64 percent);
18 percent have chef partnerships/recipe development (up from 12 percent).
The survey also revealed these initiatives are being considered or planned in 15 percent to 24 percent of additional districts.
School districts are also offering a wider variety of choices to appeal to diverse student tastes and dietary needs or preferences. Two-thirds of districts now offer salad or produce bars, up from 63 percent in 2014, the survey found, and 57 percent are providing locally sourced fruits and vegetables, up from 52 percent.
Additionally, meal programs are making it easier for parents and students to learn about menu options and to manage school meal payments. Almost 82 percent of districts say they are offering parents the option of paying for meals online.
The survey also tracked the expanded use of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows eligible schools serving predominately low income students to offer all students free school breakfast and lunch without an application. More than 24 percent of respondents reported using CEP, which was first piloted in 2011 and available to all eligible schools nationwide in the 2014/15 school year.
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CEP participation was associated with a number of positive benefits, SNA said. Participating districts reported higher breakfast and lunch participation and were significantly more likely to report that the federal reimbursement rate was sufficient to cover the cost of producing a reimbursable meal. In addition, since CEP schools offer free meals to all students, they do not struggle with unpaid student meal debt, a situation faced by three quarters of responding districts.
School meal programs, particularly those ineligible for CEP, continue to face financial challenges as they work to promote healthy lifestyles for students, SNA said. A plurality of respondents reported that the federal reimbursements for school breakfast and lunch were not sufficient to cover the costs of producing a meal in the 2015/16 school year. In addition, the average daily lunch participation rates for a typical district continue to decline, with district-wide lunch participation dropping to 61 percent, down from 64 percent in 2014 and 68 percent in 2011.
SNA used the release of the survey results to support a call for Congress to pass a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that provides additional funding for school meal programs. SNA said it supports the Senate agreement on school nutrition standards, and opposes the House bill, H.R. 5003, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, which would restrict school eligibility for CEP and institute a block grant pilot that would cut funds for school meal programs.
“With students back in school, Congress cannot afford to further delay Child Nutrition Reauthorization,” Domokos-Bays said. “School meal programs depend on Congress’ support to help make updated nutrition standards a success for all students.”
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