(CNSNews.com) - The attempt to legislate nutrition is causing problems in the nation's public schools.
Food waste is up and the number of students buying school lunches is down, witnesses told a congressional panel on Thursday.
And the maximum weekly limits on protein and grain servings, although temporarily suspended, are particularly troublesome:
"Under the grain and protein maximums, our cafeterias faced the choice of either eliminating these daily alternatives or offering them only four days a week, leaving students confused and upset on Fridays," said Sandra Ford, director of food and nutrition services for Manatee County School District in Bradenton, Florida.
"On the first day of school, one of my elementary school students burst into tears in the cafeteria because he couldn't get his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Meanwhile, we haven't been able to find whole grain sandwich wraps that meet the weekly grain limits, so we've had to cut our wraps in half. How would you feel if suddenly your favorite sandwich was served on just half a wrap?
"These menu changes have driven children out of our program," Ford told a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee.
The Agriculture Department, which oversees the school lunch program, has lifted the grain and protein limits through the 2013-2014 school year, but the temporary reprieve leaves school cafeterias in limbo.
"We brought back our daily sandwich choices to the menu," Ford said, "but how will students respond if we are forced to take away their sandwiches again next year?"
Kay E. Brown, who works for the Government Accountability Office, told the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education that all of the school food authorities (SFAs) her team visited were challenged by the meat and grain limits:
"Because regulations issued in January 2012 by USDA placed limits on the amounts of meats/meat alternates and grains that can be included in a school lunch, all eight SFAs we visited modified or eliminated some popular menu items, leading to negative student reactions in some districts," Brown said.
"Officials in one of the districts we visited told us that, in response to the new limits, cheeseburgers were removed from the elementary and middle school lunch menus because adding cheese to the district's burger patties would have made it difficult to stay within the weekly meat maximums.
"In another district, the SFA reported that it switched from using shredded cheese on the chili dog to processed cheese sauce because it does not count as a meat alternate."
To comply with the maximum grain limit, one of the districts started serving potato chips instead of whole grain chips "because the potato chip did not count as a grain."
Brown said the grain maximums also affected popular lunch items, such as sandwiches: "For example, four districts we visited reduced certain grain options used for sandwiches, such as the sub roll and the tortilla wrap, and two districts stopped serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a daily option in elementary schools because the weekly grain maximum did not allow for a sandwich to be served every day."
Brown noted that SFAs in four of the districts reported “negative” student reactions to the menu changes; and some said the changes resulted in fewer students buying school lunches.
“For example, the tortilla wrap size change in one district was followed by a significant decrease in the number of students selecting their lunches from the previously popular deli sandwich line in the high schools, as well as a decrease in the overall percentage of students purchasing school lunches in those schools.”
Another district's switch away from a sub roll contributed to a student boycott of school lunch that lasted for 3 weeks.
The USDA regulations also set daily minimum and maximum calorie levels for school lunches, depending on a student’s grade, but this also posed problems:
Five of the SFAs reported that the limits on meat and grain servings made it difficult to plan menus that met the minimum 750-calorie level for high school lunches. "To comply, some SFAs added foods to the menus that, while allowable, generally do not improve the nutritional value of lunches,” Brown said.
"For example, in three of the districts we visited, the SFAs reported adding pudding to certain high school menus to bring the menus into compliance with the calorie minimum. Some SFAs also added gelatin, ice cream, or condiments such as butter, jelly, ranch dressing, or cheese sauce to become compliant, according to the districts we visited and the SFA and industry groups we spoke with.
"While these additional menu items provided needed calories to lunches, they also likely increased the amount of sugar, sodium, or fat in the meal, potentially undercutting the federal law's goal of improving the nutritional quality of lunches.”
Into the trash
Food waste also is a problem, Brown said. Students take the food they are required to put on their cafeteria tray, but they don’t have to eat it. “Although none of the districts we visited had fully analyzed food waste over the past few years to determine if it changed during school year 2012-2013, six of the SFAs we visited told us they believe food waste has increased because of the new lunch requirements."
Brown noted that student participation in the school lunch program decreased in the 2012-2013 school year – another indication that students don’t like the changes. “Most of the SFAs we visited reported that they experienced decreases in lunch participation in school year 2012-2013 in part because of the new lunch requirements,” Brown said.
The GAO is recommending that the USDA permanently remove the weekly meat/meat alternate and grain maximums for school lunches and modify federal regulations to allow school districts flexibility in complying with the defined calorie ranges for schools with students in both the grades 6-8 and 9-12 groups.
In his opening statement, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), the subcommittee chair, said the purpose of the hearing was to look at "burdensome regulations."
"Providing students healthier meals is a laudable goal we all share, but the stringent rules are creating serious headaches for schools and students," Rokita said.
"Because the law requires students to take fruits and vegetables for lunch, even if they have no intention of eating them, schools are struggling with increased waste.” He noted that one Florida school district estimated students threw out $75,000 worth of food, and at Dedham High School in Massachusetts, administrators report many students throw away the required fresh vegetables that cost the district about $111 a day to provide.
"Smaller portions, limited options, and unappetizing entrees have caused some students to protest new cafeteria food. High school students, athletes in particular, claim the calorie limits leave them hungry, and have resorted to bringing additional meals and snacks from home. Other students have simply stopped participating in the school lunch program altogether. According to the USDA in February, the average daily participation in the school lunch program had dropped about 3 percent in the past year," Rokita said.
“The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service estimated the cost of compliance with new nutrition standards will reach $3.2 billion over the next five years. With states already facing large budget deficits, these regulations are placing an unnecessary burden on schools and districts at the expense of low-and middle-income students.”
Rokita said Congress has a responsibility to “put these programs on a more sustainable path for the future.”
According to GAO, the National School Lunch Program, established in 1946, provides low-cost or free lunches in participating schools to about 31 million children each month. At the federal level, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service oversees the program, which is administered by states and local SFAs. In fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent over $11 billion on the National School Lunch Program.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which reauthorized the National School Lunch Program, required changes to the federal lunch requirements with the intention of reducing childhood obesity and improving children's diets. Under that law, schools must offer both fruits and vegetables daily, offer more whole grain foods, serve only fat-free and low-fat milk, and limit the amount of grains and meats/meat alternates served each week.