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Two new studies underscore hopes, frustrations of revamped school lunches

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A new government study indicates that school districts across the nation have struggled to implement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s revamped nutrition standards for school meals, while a separate, privately funded study shows students are eating more fruits and vegetables because of those same new standards.

Neither study, advocates suggest, offers a full picture yet on how the revamped nutritional standards, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, are impacting school cafeterias, student participation in the National School Lunch Program and childhood obesity.

The recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office report paints a fairly bleak picture of school districts trying to adapt to the revised USDA nutrition standards, which went into effect during the 2012-2013 academic year for administrators who want the extra federal reimbursement for their lunch programs. Among the changes to the National School Lunch Program, which was established in 1946 and feeds more than 31 million kids annually, is a requirement for students to select either a half cup of fruit or vegetables with their meals. School cafeterias have increased the amount of whole grains, reduced calories and eliminated the availability of whole and 2 percent milk as well.

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements. The GAO researchers based their findings on historical data as well as on 2013 surveys and interviews with state child nutrition directors and food service providers at eight school districts across the country. They also observed lunches and spoke with students.

Some of the issues singled out in the GAO report have been resolved, noted Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For example, Wootan said, the USDA has already eliminated the maximums on meats and grains, which led some students to protest small serving sizes in school cafeterias.

But more important, Wootan said, change is never easy. Challenges adopting the new standards were expected.

“Teaching science also is challenging, but that doesn’t mean schools should drop it from the curriculum,” Wootan noted in an e-mail. “And even if schools do a great job teaching science, not all students get passing marks. Schools keep working to help as many students as possible do well and pass.”

“Ultimately when you consider the long-term public health benefits, these initial bumps don’t compare to your savings and impact of improving school nutrition for 31 million kids/day,” Wootan wrote.

But the GAO report notes that nationwide participation in the program has declined by more than 1 million since its peak of 31.8 million students during the 2010-2011 academic year. Participation during the 2012-2013 school year dropped to 30.7 million students, the lowest since the 2006-2007 school year when 30.6 million students participated. The vast majority of the lunch program drop-outs have come from students who pay full price for their meals.

The report points out several factors that may account for the drop: the increased meal price, smaller portions and a growing lack of interest in the lunch program among paying students. Participation among paying students has been dropping since the 2007-2008 school year.

At the same time, the GAO report notes that participation in the free meal program has increased significantly since the same academic year, or roughly when an economic downturn began in the United States. “[O]ur analysis of USDA’s data shows that the number of students approved for free meals nationally has been increasing at a greater rate since school year 2007-2008, and the number of students required to pay full price for their lunches has been decreasing.”

The decline doesn’t surprise Howell Wechsler, chief executive of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and former director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One of the things is getting students used to” more healthful foods, Wechsler says. “It takes a while to get them used to new food. . .It takes a little bit of trial and error.”

Despite the apparent gloom and doom of the GAO report, its authors do not recommend scaling back the USDA nutritional requirements for the lunch program, unlike other groups. Food service directors and other members of the School Nutrition Association are lobbying Congress to drop a number of requirements, including the one forcing students to select a half cup of fruit or vegetables.

“Some students simply do not want to take a fruit or a vegetable with their meal,” the association notes in its position paper on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2015. “Forcing students to take a food they don’t want on their tray has led to increased program costs, plate waste, and a decline in student participation.”

There was better news for health-food reformers from researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health, who just published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study examined two days in the fall of 2011 at four low-income elementary and middle schools in the Boston area. The next fall, after the new nutritional standards kicked in, the researchers went back to the same schools to measure food selection, consumption and waste patterns among the 1,030 students who took part in the study.

The results show that students were eating more fruits and vegetables overall, sometimes based on the fact that students were required to select one or the other. For example, the percentage of fruits consumed declined from one year to the next, but the total number of fruits increased because more students selected the food to begin with.

And contrary to what the GAO reported, the Harvard researchers indicated the new nutritional standards were not leading to more food waste. The standards, however, don’t seem to be reducing waste, either.

“Although the new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste, the consistently high levels of fruit and vegetable waste are concerning,” the authors wrote. “Students discarded roughly 60 to 75 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruits on their trays. These levels of waste are similar to those previously found in other urban, low-income schools in Massachusetts, with a different ethnic population. This suggests that the high levels of fruit and vegetable waste have been a continuous problem that warrants serious attention.”