WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department said 524
schools — out of about 100,000 — have dropped out of the federally subsidized
national school lunch program since the government introduced new standards for
healthier foods last year.
The new standards have met with grumbling from school
nutrition officials who say they are difficult and expensive to follow,
conservatives who say the government shouldn’t be dictating what kids eat and —
unsurprisingly — from some children who say the less-greasy food doesn’t taste
as good. But USDA said the vast majority of schools are serving healthier food,
with some success.
According to USDA data, around a half-percent of schools
have dropped out since last year. Ninety of those 524 schools that have dropped
out said specifically that they did so because of the new meal-plan
requirements. Most of the rest did not give a reason.
Eighty percent of schools said they have already met the
requirements, which went into place at the beginning of the 2012 school year.
“It’s important to remember that some schools weren’t as
close to meeting the new standards, and they may need a little more time for
their students to fully embrace the new meals,” said Dr. Janey Thornton, the
USDA deputy undersecretary in charge of the school meals.
She said it is clear that the majority of schools think the
new standards are working.
In an effort to stem high childhood obesity levels, the new
guidelines set limits on calories and salt, and they phase in more whole grains
in federally subsidized meals served in schools’ main lunch line. Schools must
offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal and comply with a variety of
other specific nutrition requirements.
The rules aim to introduce more nutrients to growing kids
and also to make old favorites healthier — pizza with low-fat cheese and
whole-wheat crust, for example, or baked instead of fried potatoes.
If schools do not follow the rules, or if they drop out,
they are not eligible for the federal dollars that reimburse them for free and
low-cost meals served to low-income students. That means wealthier schools with
fewer needy students are more likely to be able to operate outside of the
Some school nutrition officials have said buying the
healthier foods put a strain on their budgets. A study by the Pew Charitable
Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project indicated that 91 percent of
school food officials the group surveyed said they face challenges in putting
the standards in place, including problems with food costs and availability,
training employees to follow the new guidelines, and a lack of the proper
equipment to cook healthier meals.
The group said almost all schools they surveyed had expected
to meet the requirements by the end of last year. Even though some schools are
still working out the kinks, “it shows that this is certainly doable,” said
Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew project, which has lobbied for
Leah Schmidt, president of the School Nutrition Association
and director of nutrition programs for a school district in Kansas City, Mo.,
said any schools that would consider forgoing the federal funds would have to
have very few students eating the free and reduced-cost meals.
She said it is to be expected that some schools have met
“Any time you have something new, you’re going to have some
growing pains,” she said.
Dr. Howell Wechsler, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier
Generation, a group that is aiming to reduce childhood obesity, said that though
some schools are still working to catch up, many have exceeded the standards.
The alliance has worked with more than 18,000 schools in all
50 states, and Wechsler said many are thinking of creative ways to encourage
healthy eating, like holding walk-a-thons or farmers markets to raise money
instead of bake sales.
He said that many of the schools have reported better
academic performance and less student sick days as a result.
“Just about all of the schools that participate with us they
say there is a difference,” he said.
As some schools struggled to follow the new guidelines at
the beginning of the last school year, USDA relaxed some of the original
requirements. In December, the department did away with daily and weekly limits
on meats and grains that school nutrition officials said were too hard to
Congress also has had its say on the standards. In 2011,
after USDA first proposed them, Congress prohibited the department from limiting
potatoes and french fries and allowed school lunchrooms to continue counting
tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.
The school lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches
served at reduced or no cost to low-income children. Those meals have always
been subject to nutritional guidelines because they are partially paid for by
the federal government, but the new rules put broader restrictions on what could
be served as childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed.
Schoolchildren still can buy additional foods in other parts
of the lunchroom and the school. Separate USDA rules to make those foods
healthier could go into effect as soon as next year.
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