Michelle Obama's Lunch Rules Have Cost Cafeteria Worker Jobs

Survey of more than 1,000 school districts finds 80 percent faced financial difficulty

August 25, 2015

Hundreds of school districts in the country have made layoffs and reduced hours for cafeteria workers due to First Lady Michelle Obama’s lunch rules, a new survey has found.

Participation in the school lunch program is down, food waste is up, and 80 percent of districts have taken steps to offset financial losses as a result of the healthy rules, according to a survey released Tuesday of more than 1,000 school districts by the Student Nutritional Association (SNA).

"Our waste has increased dramatically," said one district foodservice employee on the effects of the standards. "It is shameful the food we throw away. We have the healthiest garbage!"

More than half (57.7 percent) of school districts said participation in the school lunch program "somewhat" or "significantly" declined since the standards went into effect in 2012, and the vast majority of schools are having trouble financially.

"Despite efforts to promote healthier choices, there is clear consensus with regard to the impact of federal nutrition standards for meals and snacks: nearly seven of every 10 respondents say that the standards have been harmful to their program’s financial health since inception of the standards in 2012," the SNA said. "Fewer than 3 percent report a benefit to their program’s financial heath from the standards, with the balance reporting either no impact or are unsure."

As a result of the rules, districts have had to make layoffs and reduce hours for foodservice employees.

"Given the wide-scale impact of detrimental factors and the prevalence of programs with relatively weak financial health, it is not surprising to see that about eight of every 10 districts have had to take steps to offset financial losses," the SNA said.

Forty-eight percent of school districts said they reduced staffing by reducing hours, making layoffs, and deferring hiring. Other districts diminished their reserve fund (41.3 percent), limited menu choices (35.6 percent), or deferred or canceled equipment investments (32.3 percent).

The survey included comments from food service directors across the country about their personal hardships trying to meet the standards.

"We had a fund balance of $500,000," one district employee said. "It is now gone. Student acceptance is a serious issue."

"The costs associated with these changes have taken a huge toll on our ability to purchase equipment or expand our offerings," said another. "We have been limited to hire positions needed for our program due to lack of funding. Students are very intolerant of-mediocre tasting products due to decrease of sodium and requirement to use whole grains."

One director said their program would be bankrupt in two years. Another said the school could no longer make homemade vegetable and chicken noodle soups or chef’s salads because of the sodium limits.

Another foodservice director said teachers are throwing more pizza parties to make sure kids have enough to eat.

"Enough already. A lot of damage has been done," they said. "Now, every group in our high school has taken on the sale of all kinds of things. Classroom pizza parties are everywhere and often. The intention may have been honorable; the results are not."

Other unintended consequences of the first lady’s lunch rules include black markets where kids are selling salt and sugar to make the food more palatable.

The SNA, a nonprofit group with more than 55,000 members of school lunch foodservice workers, said it supports the "overwhelming majority" of the healthy standards, including calorie limits, and an increase in fruits and vegetables.

The group advocates for greater flexibility with the rules, such as halting any more requirements to reduce sodium and an increase in the amount schools are reimbursed for meals so they can afford to comply.

The latest survey was taken between June and July. The SNA received responses from 1,100 district-level employees, mostly district directors, representing 1,100 different school districts nationwide.