Let’s Move: 1.6M Paying Students Drop School Lunch--‘Challenges With Palatability’

By Ali Meyer | March 4, 2014 | 5:23 PM EST

First lady Michelle Obama eats a school lunch with public school students. (AP)

(CNSNews.com) -- 1.6 million students who used to pay for school lunches have stopped buying them, according to a Government Accountability Office Report (GAO).

GAO noted that part of the decline was due to the "challenges withpalatability" of lunches that have to meet new nutrition guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The GAO also noted that among students still getting the school lunches there was “plate waste”--n.b. students throwing away some of the food.

“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,” said the GAO in its report,   Implementing Nutrition Changes Was Challenging and Clarification of Oversight Requirements Is Needed.

“Further, some SFAs we visited noted that negative student reactions to lunches that complied with the new meat and grain portion size limits directly affected program participation in their districts,” said the GAO.  The school food authorities noted that changes made to sandwiches led “to a middle and high school boycott of school lunch by students that lasted for 3 weeks and, at the same time, “participation in school lunch significantly declined in those schools.”

School lunch. (AP Photo)

The report also said, “Nationwide, participation in the National School Lunch Program declined in recent years after having increased steadily for more than a decade. According to our analysis of USDA’s data, total student participation—the total number of students who ate school lunches—dropped from school years 2010-2011 through 2012-2013 for a cumulative decline of 1.2 million students (or 3.7 percent), with the majority of the decrease occurring during school year 2012-2013.”

“The decrease in the total number of students eating school lunches during the last two school years was driven primarily by a decrease of 1.6 million students paying full price for meals, despite increases in the number of students eating school lunches who receive free meals,” said the report.

“While the number of students who buy full-price lunches each month has been declining gradually since school year 2007-2008, the largest one-year decline—10 percent—occurred in school year 2012-2013. In contrast, the number of students participating in the program each month who receive free meals has steadily increased over the years, though the increase was much smaller in the last year,” said the GAO.

First lady Michelle Obama gets lunch with students at a public school cafeteria. (AP)

“Each month, states report to USDA the number of lunches served in the program and USDA adjusts the data to determine the number of students participating,” reads the report. “According to the data, student participation declined by 84,000 students (0.3 percent) in school year 2011-2012 and by an additional 1,086,000 students (3.4 percent) in school year 2012-2013.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required that the USDA update school lunches to account for new nutrition requirements.

“Regarding the lunch components – fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, and milk -- lunches must now include fat-free or low-fat milk, limited amounts of meats/meat alternatives and grains, and whole grain-rich foods,” says the GAO.  “Further, lunches must now include both fruit and vegetable choices, and although students may be allowed to decline two of the five lunch components they are offered, they must select at least one half cup of fruits or vegetables as part of their meal.”

Some of the reason for decline in participation in the lunch program was because of challenges with implementing the new lunch content, such as palatability and “plate waste.”

“In our state survey, 48 states identified student acceptance as a challenge and 33 states noted challenges with palatability – food that tasted good to students – for at least some of their SFAs in school year 2012-2013,” said the GAO.

(AP photo)

“For example, most states reported that school food authorities (SFAs) faced challenges with addressing plate waste – or foods thrown away rather than consumed by students – and managing food costs,” reads the report, “as well as planning menus and obtaining foods that complied with portion size and calorie requirements.”

Other factors, such as complying with the new standards, made the process for school food authorities difficult.

The GAO says, “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. Almost all states reported that student acceptance of the changes was challenging for at least some of their SFAs during school year 2012-2013, a factor that likely affected participation.”

“All eight SFAs 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,” reads the report.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan eats lunch with students at a public school cafeteria. (AP)

“Further, some SFAs we visited noted that negative student reactions to lunches that complied with the new meat and grain portion size limits directly affected program participation in their districts,” said the GAO. “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. During this time, participation in school lunch significantly declined in those schools.”

“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,” reported the GAO.  “Some middle and high school students we talked to in these districts echoed this sentiment and said this combination led them to consider food options other than the school lunch program, particularly at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.”