GAO Report Highlights Difficulties in New Lunch Program Rules

Students have complained about school food for decades, but now the schools themselves are voicing objections.

Kyle Olson of EAG News writes that schools are increasingly feeling hemmed in by the new nutrition standards adopted by the US Department of Agriculture and supported by the First Lady Michelle Obama. In a new report, the Government Accountability Office points to a number of problems faced by schools thanks to the revised National School Lunch Program that aims to provide healthier meals to students.

According to GAO administrators who visited 8 districts adopting the new USDA standards, problems reported by local education officials ranged from student rejections of new meals to food waste and increased costs. School administrators also said that the rules forced adaptations that could be objectively described as absurd.

The report notes the absurd conflicts and inconsistencies created by the changes. For example, cheeseburgers were removed from one district’s elementary and middle school lunch menus because adding cheese to the burger “would have made it difficult to stay within the weekly meat maximums.” Another district switched from shredded cheese to cheese sauce because the liquid cheese “does not count as a meat alternate.”

Cheese is cheese, unless you’re writing government regulations, apparently.

The GAO report points to issues in the way regulations were written, so that even districts that support the initiative’s goals of healthier lunches are forced to make odd adjustments such as substituting potato chips for whole grain chips to stay within the required limits on grains.

Similarly, the standards don’t guarantee that the number of healthier options available to students actually increase.

“To comply with both the meat and grain maximums and the required calorie minimums for lunches, some districts added foods that generally did not improve the nutritional value of the lunches.

“In three of the districts we visited, the [School Food Authorities] 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 complaint. … 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.”

Of course, meeting the standards is only half the battle. Healthier lunches won’t do kids much good if the kids don’t eat them. The report points to growing problem of food waste as a strong indicator that kids are just not interested in eating more nutritionally sound meals because they don’t like the taste.

This is especially an issue with the USDA’s fruit and vegetable requirements. Based on personal observations and reports by school officials, GAO inspectors said that many kids simply end up throwing their fruit and vegetable portions away.