Mixed report for USDA's school meal plan

Mixed report for USDA's school meal plan

Government Accountability Office reviews USDA's school meals program and efforts underway to address its issues

While school lunch participation has declined between 2010 and 2014, according to a new report from the Governmental Accountability Office, USDA is working to correct challenges among schools providing meals under new standards set out by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Related: Study documents school lunch fruit, vegetable plate waste

GAO reviewed the school lunch program in the report, "USDA Has Efforts Underway to Help Address Ongoing Challenges Implementing Changes in Nutrition Standards," released Wednesday.

Candy Flores (right), prepares ham and cheese wraps and Rosalba Gomez, prepares fresh vegetable cups for the National School Lunch Program in the kitchen at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

Nationwide, the report says, participation in school lunch declined by 4.5% from school year 2010-11 to 2013-14. The participation rate of enrolled students also declined, from 62% to 58%.

Continued school lunch challenges
Seven of eight schools interviewed by GAO said there were challenges with student acceptance of new school lunch standards under HHFKA, and four of the eight said recent required price increases may be discouraging student participation.

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 said.

Schools interviewed reported differing challenges with the standards – five of eight said they continue to have challenges with plate waste, while officials in the other three suggested plate waste is actually decreasing under the HHFKA standards.

Another challenge, said five of the eight schools, is difficulty serving the required food items in a way that appeals to students. Some schools resorted to including less-desired fruits or vegetables baked in other dishes to get around this issue, GAO said.

Sodium remains another concern of schools – officials said there could be continued problems with meeting lower sodium requirements, which will be phased in over the next eight years.

Related: Vilsack: Healthy school children important to economy, U.S. security

A new change for the 2014-15 school year was requirements for "competitive foods" – those offered outside of the school meal program. Some schools said they had trouble finding products to serve that met the requirements, while others said foods offered have contributed to lower revenue as a result of decreased student demand.

Further, compliance is a concern for the districts, GAO said, though UYSDA has recently required states to begin including competitive foods in their school lunch program reviews.

What USDA is working on
Despite the challenges, GAO said USDA is making progress in providing tools and guidance, including webinars, that help school districts implement changes.

USDA also said that the most substantial changes are already underway and will limit the need for additional guidance in future years.

The full report, which was requested by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, can be accessed on the GAO website.

Mixed report for USDA's school meal plan

Participation Changes Since School Year (SY) 2000-2001 in the National School Lunch Program for SY 2000-2001 through 2013-2014

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