Federally-mandated changes to school lunches backed by first lady Michelle Obama helped cause an unprecedented drop in the number of students eating lunch, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The GAO cited two factors stemming from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which caused a decrease in the number of children eating school lunch each day: school childrens’ issues with “palatability” and “federally-mandated” increases in the price of school lunches.
“Several factors likely influenced the recent decreases in lunch participation, and while the extent to which each factor affected participation is unclear, state and local officials reported that the decreases were influenced by changes made to comply with the new lunch content and nutrition standards,” the report reads.
The federal lunch requirements — which went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year — forced school districts to offer more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk, while cutting back on meat and sodium.
GAO found that student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students — or 3.7 percent — between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013. That reversed a years-long upward trend in lunch program participation.
The 2012-2013 school year also saw a 10 percent decrease in the number of students paying full price to eat lunch.
Forty-eight states reported to GAO’s national survey that “obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging.”
Another 33 states reported challenges with the “palatability” of the food being offered to schoolchildren.
This “likely affected participation in the program,” GAO reported.
“All eight SFAs (school food authorities) we visited also noted that 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 report also cites other school officials who said that negative reactions to new limits on meat and grain portion size led to lower participation in the lunch program.
“For example, in one district, changes the SFA made to specific food items, such as sandwiches, contributed to a middle and high school boycott of school lunch by students that lasted for 3 weeks at the beginning of school year 2012-2013.”
But taste was not the only thing turning school children away.
“Federally-required increases” in the price of the lunches caused some school children to stop buying them.
“Officials from three states and four SFAs we spoke with as part of our site visits believe the price increases likely contributed to declines in the number of students buying full-price lunches,” GAO reported.
The mandated higher prices were intended to cover the increased cost of the more nutritious options. But school officials worried that the mandate would have the unintended consequences, especially for children who don’t receive reduced-price lunches but whose families are not well off.
Officials in two districts “expressed concern that lunch price increases are particularly difficult for families who do not receive free or reduced-price lunches but have limited incomes, as the new prices may no longer be affordable,” GAO reported.
“Further, SFA officials in two districts believed that lunch price increases, combined with the lunch content changes, led some students to stop buying school lunches because they felt they were being asked to pay more for less food.”
The GAO report notes that “the reaction to the paid lunch price increases is consistent with USDA’s expectations.”
“Prior to implementation, the department estimated that nearly all schools would need to increase their lunch prices in response to the requirements, and these increases were expected to decrease the number of students eating school lunches as they chose not to eat, brought their lunches from home, or acquired food from other sources.”
Some of the SFAs interviewed by GAO expressed concern that these higher prices will undermine the goal of improving students diet and “potentially increase stigma in the cafeteria for low-income students.”