New school lunch standards implemented as a result of First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign have led to more than 1 million children leaving the lunch line, according to a new report.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a wide-ranging audit of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act nutrition standards last week, finding 48 out of 50 states faced challenges complying with Mrs. Obama’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
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The new standards led to kids throwing out their fruits and vegetables, student boycotts, higher lunch costs, and odd food pairings such as "cheese stick with shrimp" in order for schools to comply with the complicated rules.
The National School Lunch Program saw a sharp decline in participation once the healthy standards went into effect during the 2012-2013 school year. A total of 1,086,000 students stopped buying school lunch, after participation had increased steadily for nearly a decade.
The report found that 321 districts left the National School Lunch Program altogether, many of which cited the new standards as a factor.
The decline was "influenced by changes made to comply with the new lunch content and nutrition standards," state and local officials said.
Though the USDA has claimed the standards were "proving popular," the GAO report cited numerous cases where kids are unhappy with their new menus.
The standards forced some schools to stop serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and led middle school and high school students to opt for vending machines or buying food off campus to avoid the lunch line.
The GAO conducted a nationwide survey of nutrition directors and visited 17 schools in eight school districts for the audit. In each district, "students expressed dislike for certain foods that were served to comply with the new requirements, such as whole grain-rich products and vegetables in the beans and peas (legumes) and red-orange sub-groups, and this may have affected participation."
The standards brought "negative student reactions." In one case, middle school and high school students organized a three-week boycott after their school changed their sandwiches to comply with the rules.
All eight School Food Authorities (SFAs) the GAO visited "modified or eliminated" popular food items. One district had to cut cheeseburgers because "adding cheese to the district’s burger patties would have made it difficult to stay within the weekly meat maximums."
The new standards are exhaustive, including calorie ranges for each age group, sodium limits, zero tolerance for trans fats, and specific ounce amounts for meats and grains. White bread will be mostly phased out beginning in 2014 because only "whole grain rich" items will be allowed.
Portion requirements and calorie limits are also in conflict, leading some SFAs to add unhealthy food such as pudding or potato chips to the menu, and serve odd food combinations in order to meet the rules.
"For example, one SFA served saltine crackers and croutons with certain salads to meet the minimum daily grain requirement and a cheese stick with shrimp to meet the minimum daily meat requirement," the GAO said.
Unappetizing food led to the biggest problem school officials faced: food waste.
"Students may take the food components they are required to as part of the school lunch but then choose not to eat them," the GAO said. As a result, 48 out of 50 states cited waste as a challenge.
"In our lunch period observations in 7 of 17 schools, we saw many students throw away some or all of their fruits and vegetables," the GAO said.
The "morale" for cafeteria workers has also suffered under the new standards.
"Staff in one SFA noted that the increased amount of time and effort to prepare fruits and vegetables also led to morale issues when staff saw students throw the fruits and vegetables in the trash," the GAO said.
Lunchroom costs are also going up due to the need for "new spoons and ladles to match the new portion size requirements." Thirty-one percent of SFAs nationwide said they needed additional kitchen equipment to comply with the new lunch requirements last school year.
The law mandated that schools increase the price of school lunches, causing students to stop buying "because they felt they were being asked to pay more for less food." Kids who pay full price for meals declined by 10 percent last school year, the lowest rate in over a decade.
Challenges with the school lunch program, which cost $11.6 billion in 2012, are expected to continue, as further regulations go into effect. The "first of three" sodium limits starts in 2014-2015, though "many of the foods available from manufacturers do not yet comply with these limits."
School officials noted, "it will be very difficult" to serve food that is "palatable to students" under the sodium standards.
As for the other requirements, the GAO said students would get used to it.
"Although school lunch participation has declined, it is likely that participation will improve over time as students adjust to the lunch changes," they said.