School districts across the country are opting out of the federal school lunch program because the new, healthier standards now imposed by the US Department of Agriculture are causing schools to lose money. Not only are meals that comply with the new requirements more expensive to provide, kids don't seem very eager to purchase them, leading to a massive amount of waste that administrators already operating with smaller budgets simply cannot afford.
There are not definite numbers on how many districts have dropped the program entirely, but there are stories from schools all around the country. Gary Lewis, superintendent of the Catlin, Illinois school district, provides one such example. After the new standards went into effect, total lunch sales in Catlin dropped by as much as 12%, resulting in losses in excess of $30,000. According to Lewis, more kids are bringing lunches from home or simply going hungry rather than purchasing the healthier fare.
In upstate New York, a few districts have quit the program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red. Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn't even make it through the school year after students repeatedly complained about the small portions and apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched.
Districts that leave the program are free to develop their own guidelines. Voorheesville's chef began serving such dishes as salad topped with flank steak and crumbled cheese, pasta with chicken and mushrooms, and a panini with chicken, red peppers and cheese.
Although Dr. Janey Thornton, who oversees the program in her capacity as the deputy undersecretary for the USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, admitted to the Associated Press that the department has been hearing stories of district dropping out to the unpopularity of the new meals among the kids, she believes that in the end the new standards will work out. It takes a while for kids to adopt to changes, she thinks — especially children who don't have access to a lot of healthy foods at home and might find the offerings off-putting.
"Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn," she said.
The agency had not determined how many districts have dropped out, Thornton said, cautioning that "the numbers that have threatened to drop and the ones that actually have dropped are quite different."
The School Nutrition Association found that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move.