Federally funded school lunches have been in the news because Republicans in the U.S. House just voted to allow some schools to get a waiver from a law that requires lunches served to students to meet new health standards. Why? Apparently some schools can’t make enough money serving healthy foods because kids don’t want to eat them and are throwing away healthy foods.What a surprise.

Some schools have dropped out of the federally funded program because they are losing money, while others want a waiver to give them more time to figure out how to meet the nutrition requirements. Republicans, backed by processed food-making companies, are pushing flexibility from the law.

The law, which was championed by first lady Michelle Obama,  sets limits for the amount of sodium, fat, sugar and calories that can be in school lunches; mandates that schools offer students a wide selection of fruits and vegetables; says that all milk must be either nonfat or 1 percent; and makes requirements for the use of whole grains. She said she would fight the effort to roll back the new regulations.

 


A school lunch salad entree option featuring low-sodium chicken, a whole-grain roll, fresh red peppers and cilantro dressing is assembled in a lunch basket at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle, on  May 5. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Implementation of the law, which has been ongoing in stages for a few years, has been more difficult than you might imagine. A  January 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, explains as early as the title: “SCHOOL LUNCH: Implementing Nutrition Changes Was Challenging and Clarification of Oversight Requirements Is Needed.”

So how much clarification was needed? How many memos on implements did the Agriculture Department send out to schools about these regulations? About 90, the report says. Here’s the passage:

USDA provided a substantial amount of guidance and training to assist states and SFAs in complying with the required changes to school lunch, which states indicated was useful. According to USDA officials, the department’s assistance effort has been unprecedented. From January 2011 — the month after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was enacted — through September 2013, USDA issued about 90 memos to provide guidance to states and SFAs on the new requirements for the content of school lunches and paid lunch equity. (See fig. 10.) Most of the memos (85 percent) addressed the new requirements for lunch content and nutrition standards, as well as related issues such as food procurement and state review of SFA compliance with the lunch requirements. The remaining 15 percent of the memos addressed the paid lunch equity requirements. Over the past few years, USDA also provided training through several venues to help states and SFAs implement the changes. For example, USDA officials convened webinars and in-person trainings for states, participated in webinars and national conferences for SFAs, and worked with the National Food Service Management Institute to provide additional training and resources. USDA’s regional offices also provided training to states. In addition, as the changes were implemented in school year 2012-2013, USDA officials reported that they conducted an extensive amount of travel to visit school districts around the country to see how their efforts to implement the changes were progressing and to obtain feedback on additional assistance needed. All states reported that USDA’s guidance and training were useful as the new school lunch requirements were implemented. Further, over half of the states reported that USDA’s guidance was very useful or extremely useful, and officials from seven of the eight states we interviewed as part of our site visits expressed appreciation for USDA’s efforts to respond to issues that arose as changes were implemented.


(GAO report)