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2015 K-12 Census: USDA regulations continue to confound schools

Despite their best efforts, operators still struggle to satisfy healthy menu requirements.

A recent survey of its members by the School Nutrition Association revealed that many operators are facing moderate to serious  
challenges in meeting the stricter nutritional requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. confused school girl

For example, in the SNA survey 87 percent of respondents said increased food waste was a major problem. A similar percentage reported having challenges meeting new, lower sodium requirements, and 92 percent of operators said their food costs have increased since implementing the standards.

“Unfortunately, since the new nutrition standards took effect, SNA has heard from an overwhelming majority of members who have encountered myriad problems and support requests for flexibility,” said SNA CEO Patricia Montague, when the report was released in December.

The results of that survey echoed what FoodService Director readers told us recently in the 2015 K-12 School Census that polled 343 foodservice directors. For example:

  • 80 percent of respondents to our survey said having to increase the amount of fruit offered at breakfast has resulted in increased food waste.
  • 93 percent said their costs have risen, with the average increase being 15 percent.
  • 51 percent reported that meeting the 100 percent whole grain requirement at lunch has been extremely or very challenging.
  • 71 percent said the same of meeting lower sodium requirement.
  • 66 percent are struggling with satisfying requirements of the new competitive foods (aka Smart Snacks) rules.

On the flip side, only 16 percent of operators indicated that they have considered dropping out of the National School Lunch Program because of the new regulations, suggesting that most school districts are willing to continue trying to make the regulations work.

Breakfast numbers: Up or down?

More than 96 percent of operators responding to the K-12 Census say they offer breakfast in at least one type of school (Pre-K to grade 5, grades 6 to 8 and grades 9 to 12), with 100 percent of school districts with 70,000 or more students offering breakfast to all grade levels.

When asked what the new USDA-mandated breakfast meal regulations have meant for breakfast participation, responses were fairly split. However, the smallest districts (less than 2,000 students) were most likely, at 39 percent, to have seen a decrease in participation. The largest districts, at 67 percent, were most likely to have seen an increase in customers.

Since implementing the new meal breakfast regulations, has your participation increased, decreased or remained the same?

breakfast regulation participation chart

How challenging has it been to implement the increased amount of fruit at breakfast?

challenging fruit breakfast charg

The lunch meal: The bigger challenge

Lunch participation has become a bigger challenge than breakfast, according to survey respondents, with 48 percent saying their participation has decreased versus 34 percent at breakfast. Once again, the smallest schools were more likely to report a drop in numbers, with 55 percent reporting a decrease. The largest districts, on the other hand, were more likely to report an increase in participation at 67 percent.

Since implementing the increased amount of fruit at breakfast, has fruit waste increased?

amount fruit breakfast waste chart

Have costs increased?

have costs increased chart

Average percentage cost increase: 15%.

Has your lunch participation this school year increased, decreased or remained the same?

lunch meal bigger challenge chart

USDA rules continue to bring challenges

Meal requirements for whole grains, sodium reductions and competitive foods continue to make school foodservice programs more difficult to operate, directors say.  Generally, however, the largest districts have found following the new regulations to be less challenging than have other size districts:

SIZE OF DISTRICT PERCENTAGEMEETING 100% WHOLE GRAIN REQUIREMENTS HAS BEEN EXTREMELY OR VERY CHALLENGINGMEETING SODIUM REDUCTION REQUIREMENTS HAS BEEN EXTREMELY OR VERY CHALLENGINGMEETING COMPETITIVE FOOD (AKA SMART SNACKS) REGULATIONS HAS BEEN EXTREMELY OR VERY CHALLENGING
<2,00052%70%65%
2,000-4,99952%76%69%
5,000-9,99962%69%71%
10,000-69,99945%70%67%
>70,00025%58%36%

Dropping out of the NSLP

Even though the USDA regulations frustrate many operators, relatively few districts say they have dropped out, or have considered dropping out, of the National School Lunch Program. The most onerous regulation seems to be the competitive foods rule: Of the districts that have left or are considering leaving the program, 40 percent say it is because of the "Smart Snack" rule.

Have any of the schools in your district left the national school lunch program?

Some are considering dropping out15%
None of our schools have dropped out84%
Some have dropped out1%

“Smart Snacks” rule costs districts money

One thing most school districts agree on: The implementation of the competitive foods regulations has cost their districts revenue. The loss is being most keenly felt in medium-size (5,000-9,999 student) districts, where 85 percent report that food sales have decreased as a result of implementing the new rules. The average percentage decrease is 25 percent.
 
Since implementing the competitive food regs, have sales increased, decreased or remained the same?
 
smart snacks rule chart

Larger districts, poorer students

The nation’s largest school districts report having the highest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals—most likely because of higher levels of poverty in large, urban areas.  By region, Southern school districts  report having the highest percentage of such students.

 

SIZE OF DISTRICT AVERAGE PERCENTAGE OF FREE/REDUCED-PRICE STUDENTS
<2,00047%
2,000-4,99947%
5,000-9,99946%
10,000-69,99945%
>70,00063%

 

REGIONPERCENTAGE
Northeast35%
South58%
Central43%
West51%

 

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