Nationwide, participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.4 million children, from 62 to 58 percent of enrolled students, from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2013-2014, according to a study by the U.S. government’s General Accounting Office (GAO). Seven of eight states that GAO interviewed reported that challenges with student acceptance of changes made to comply with new federal nutrition requirements mandated by the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 contributed to the decrease.
Also, four of eight states noted that recent required increases in the price of lunch may have decreased participation among some students. At the same time, nationwide participation in the breakfast program continued its trend of steady increases, which can be explained, in part, by program expansion into more schools, GAO stated in a release.
Other findings from the eight School Food Authorities (SFAs) GAO reviewed included…
• five described continuing challenges with plate waste, that is, students taking required foods and then not eating them, though officials in the other three, as well as GAO's mealtime observations across the two school years, suggest that plate waste may be decreasing in some SFAs.
• five reported difficulty serving certain required food items in ways that appeal to students, though others reported some success
• SFA, state, and food company officials expressed concerns about meeting future sodium reduction targets, which USDA plans to phase in over the next 8 years. (To address these concerns, USDA is gathering information from SFAs and the food industry on progress toward reducing sodium levels in school meals.)
• six reported difficulty procuring items that met new competitive foods requirements, particularly at the beginning of the school year.
• four SFAs and two school groups selling competitive foods in the eight districts GAO reviewed reported decreased revenues due to lower student demand for products that comply with competitive foods requirements.
• SFA and state officials also reported issues with ensuring compliance and providing oversight of competitive foods sales. To identify and help address such issues, USDA recently required states to begin including competitive foods in their periodic reviews of SFAs.
• officials from five states and four SFAs reported that USDA's assistance in implementing these changes has been helpful or improving over time, though some SFAs noted problems with the amount or clarity of the guidance.
• officials from three SFAs said USDA guidance on the new requirements has been challenging to keep up with (nearly 4,700 pages were issued from January 2012 through April 2015) though USDA says the substantial changes to nutrition standards have already occurred, and therefore, the need for additional guidance should decrease in future years.
Contact Mike Buzalka at [email protected]