Federal school meal nutrition regulations that began to be implemented in 2012 have harmed the financial health of nearly 70 percent of school meal programs, and benefited fewer than 3 percent, of the 1,100 school meal programs responding to the 2015 School Nutrition Trends Survey conducted in June and July by the School Nutrition Association (SNA).
“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,” said SNA President Jean Ronnei, SNS, SNA, who is also president/COO at Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, in a statement accompanying the release of the survey results. “To ensure programs remain financially sustainable for the children they serve, Congress must provide more funding and reasonable flexibility under the most stringent rules.”
SNA’s survey also revealed that virtually all (99 percent) of responding districts have implemented or plan to implement at least one of seven listed initiatives to promote healthier choices to students. Nearly three-quarters of districts engage in student taste tests, while a majority (or near majority) have implemented nutrition education, Smarter Lunchroom techniques and Farm to School or locally grown initiatives.
Despite these efforts, 58% percent of respondents reported that student lunch participation declined under the new standards. Nearly 93 percent of those respondents cite “decreased student acceptance of meals” as a contributing factor to this decline. Districts with a low percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals struggle the most with lunch participation, 72 percent reporting a decline.
Other findings from the survey show that nearly three of four districts with a la carte service saw revenue declines since the 2014 Smart Snacks in School rules took effect, with 43 percent citing a strong decrease.
When programs were asked to identify the factors that have harmed their program’s financial health, “increased per meal food costs” led the list by a wide margin, cited by 70 percent of respondents.
Nearly eight in every ten school districts reported that they had to take steps to offset financial losses since the new standards were implemented. Among the consequences were that nearly half reduced staffing, 41 percent diminished their meal program’s reserve fund, 36 percent have limited menu choices and variety and 32 percent have deferred or canceled equipment investments.
The survey also revealed substantial benefits for schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools with a higher percentage of low income students to serve all students free meals. About one in five report having at least one school that used CEP and about two-thirds of those say that CEP participation has helped their program’s overall financial health. Districts participating in CEP were least likely to report a decrease in lunch participation.
Respondents to SNA’s 2015 School Nutrition Trends Survey represented 1,100 unique districts 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 regards to enrollment and the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to SNA’s release of the findings.
Contact Mike Buzalka at [email protected]