Two new studies underscore hopes, frustrations of revamped school lunches

Studies indicate students have embraced and rejected the government’s efforts to provide healthful meals.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A new government study indicates that school districts across the nation have struggled to implement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s revamped nutrition standards for school meals, while a separate, privately funded study shows students are eating more fruits and vegetables because of those same new standards.

Neither study, advocates suggest, offers a full picture yet on how the revamped nutritional standards, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, are impacting school cafeterias, student participation in the National School Lunch Program and childhood obesity.

The recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office report paints a fairly bleak picture of school districts trying to adapt to the revised USDA nutrition standards, which went into effect during the 2012-2013 academic year for administrators who want the extra federal reimbursement for their lunch programs. Among the changes to the National School Lunch Program, which was established in 1946 and feeds more than 31 million kids annually, is a requirement for students to select either a half cup of fruit or vegetables with their meals. School cafeterias have increased the amount of whole grains, reduced calories and eliminated the availability of whole and 2 percent milk as well.

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements. The GAO researchers based their findings on historical data as well as on 2013 surveys and interviews with state child nutrition directors and food service providers at eight school districts across the country. They also observed lunches and spoke with students.