Out of 100,000 schools in the U.S., 524 schools have dropped out of the federally subsidized national school program, which switched to new healthier food standards last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Schools have complained the healthier lunch options are unpopular among students and staff and that they are more expensive. Parents and students have complained the reduced portion sizes do not give children enough to eat.
The new standards resulted in the displeasure of school nutrition officials who argue that the requirements are much more expensive and difficult to follow. Conservatives argue that the government should not be telling children what to eat, and the children argue that the alternative meals do not taste as good. The USDA argues that the majority of schools are serving much healthier options, with some success.
Data to be released by the Agriculture Department shows that 80 percent of schools claim to have met the new requirements, which started at the start of the 2012 school year. About one-half percent of schools have already dropped out of the program. The new guidelines set limits on salt and calories for meals, in an effort to reduce childhood obesity. The new menus include whole grains in federally subsidized meals that are served in the main lunch line at schools. Schools are required to offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. Several other nutrition requirements must be met. The rules are designed to include more nutrients in the meals of growing children and to make favorite foods healthier, such as putting low-fat cheese on pizza with whole wheat crust. Potatoes are now baked instead of friend.
If schools do not follow the guidelines, or if they drop out of the program, they are no longer eligible for federal reimbursement for the free and reduced price meals that are served to low-income students. The schools who have a wealthier population and fewer needy students are the ones that are more likely to opt out of the program.
School nutrition staff has indicated buying the healthier options have put a major strain on their budgets. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project indicates that as many as 91 percent of school food officials surveyed by the group said the schools face challenges when enacting the standards because of problems with food expense and availability, training staff to follow the new guidelines, and a lack of equipment to prepare healthier meals. However, the study indicates that 94 percent of the 3,300 people surveyed expect their school can meet the requirements by the end of the school year.