Congress’ failure to reauthorize school lunches: Why FSDs care

Contending with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act hasn’t gotten any harder for school FSDs since the act’s reauthorization deadline passed at midnight Wednesday. The problem is that the challenge hasn’t gotten any easier, either. Here from FSD’s archives is a quick review of what operators cite as the main difficulties.

1. They’re struggling to meet the cost of complying.

For 2015 alone, schools have to absorb $1.2 billion in added costs because of the nutrition standards, according to the USDA. Though the department contends that 95 percent of schools are successfully meeting the mandates—and recently awarded $8 million in funding for schools struggling to make healthy meals—a recent School Nutrition Association study found that nearly 70 percent of school lunch programs have been financially hurt. Only 3 percent of participating programs enjoyed the financial benefits of increased participation, according to the SNA.

Findings indicated that 80 percent of school districts have had to take steps to offset financial losses resulting from the new standards, including staff layoffs (49 percent of districts), cuts in the meal program’s reserve fund (41 percent), limiting menu choices and variety (36 percent) and deferring or canceling equipment investments (32 percent).

2. Plate waste has increased

Earlier this year, then-SNA president Julia Bauscher asked Congress to consider a change in the mandate that participating children to take a fruit or vegetable with their meal whether they intend to eat it or not.

“We have seen a real problem with trying to force kids to take those items. We’ve found it counterproductive and wasteful,” said SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner.

A recent University of Vermont study, published in Public Health Reports, indicated that the national standards have lead to more waste and reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Although student selection of fruits and vegetables is up by 98 percent, consumption has dropped 13 percent and waste has increased 56 percent, the study found.

3. School-lunch participation has declined

More and more reports have shown that schools are opting out of the school meal program for various reasons, one of the biggest being that students are not eating the healthier food.

Current SNA President Jean Ronnei recently sent a letter to members of congressional committees involved in the reauthorization of the school lunch program, citing the decline in the percentage of eligible students who opt for free or reduced-price lunches.

The SNA also asked Congress to provide school foodservice professionals with more leeway on such matters as whole-grain, sodium and a la carte requirements.

The SNA also wants a 35-cent increase in the federal reimbursement for school meals.

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