School Lunch Costs Rising as More Kids Opt Out


According to the results of a new US Government Accountability report, students across the country are largely rejecting the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.

Since the federal standards were introduced by first lady Michelle Obama, 1.4 million schoolchildren across the country have opted out of the school lunch program.

The requirements place limits on the amount of sugar and sodium allowed in school lunch offerings and instead ask schools to use more whole grains.  In 2012, schools were asked to include a fruit or vegetable at each meal.  By 2014, that requirement had changed to ask schools to use whole grains when preparing any bread items and to give fruits to students at both breakfast and lunch regardless of whether they wanted them or not.  Now, the plans include reducing the amount of sodium allowed.

However, the new foods that follow these stricter rules are being found to make their way into garbage cans at much higher rates than the previous lunch choices.  Pink Hill Elementary school in North Carolina has noticed students routinely walking directly from the lunch line to the garbage can to toss the fruit they do not want but are required to take.

Many students are opting to stop purchasing school lunches altogether, as many districts, including Lenoir County Schools in North Carolina, are no longer able to serve popular food choices including macaroni and cheese, grits, and biscuits.

Some are posting images of nearly empty plates and unusual looking lunches to Twitter using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama.

Pam Smith, nutrition director for Lenoir County Public Schools and chairwoman of the policy and legislation committee for the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina, recently met with Chance Lambeth, deputy district director of the 7th Congressional District for David Rouzer, where she was given the opportunity to discuss changes that the association would like to see implemented in the 2015 Reauthorization Act, such as reducing the sodium restrictions and cutting back from 100% whole grains to 50%.

Funding for school lunch programs were also discussed. Smith said she would like to see all children receive free breakfast and lunch while at school.

Data from the USDA shows the school lunch program cost the nation a total of $12.7 billion in 2014, with estimates that schools will spend an additional $1.2 billion this year.  While some of that cost is covered by Congress, 70% of those programs surveyed reported financial difficulties causing reductions in staff members, canceling equipment purchases, and limitations on menu options, writes Eric Schulzke for Deseret News.

The cost of the program has also seen a significant increase due to the new requirements, causing a number of issues for school district budgets.

“School districts are being forced to financially subsidize meals at the expense of educational programs,” the School Nutrition Association and School Superintendents Association wrote to congressional leaders last month.  The regulations are “forcing school districts to absorb $1.2 billion in additional food and labor costs in FY 2015 alone,” they added.

The new regulations have even aided in the creation of a black market on school campuses where students are selling salt, pepper, and sugar to their classmates.