U.S. Kids Not Thrilled With Healthier School Lunches

GAO sees fruits and vegetables being thrown away uneaten

A new healthy USDA-required school meal
Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Are U.S. school kids enjoying the government-mandated healthier school lunches they’ve been getting for the last 5 years? Apparently not that much, says a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Background: The School Lunch Program

Since 1946, the federally assisted National School Lunch Program has been providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions every school day. In 1998, Congress expanded the program to include reimbursement to schools for snacks served to children in after-school educational and enrichment programs to include children through 18 years of age.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service administers the program at the federal level. At the state level, the program is usually administered by state education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with individual School Food Authorities (SFAs).

Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of cash reimbursements for each meal served.

Based on family income, children who participate in school meals programs either pay full price or qualify to receive free or reduced-price meals.

In Fiscal Year 2012, more than 31.6 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Since the modern program began, more than 224 billion lunches have been served.

In the fiscal year 2012, the cost of the National School Lunch Program was about $11.6 billion, according to the USDA.

But Less Fat, Less Salt, Less French Fries Now Required

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act empowered the USDA to issue a federal regulation requiring all schools taking part in the National School Lunch Program to serve healthier, low-sodium and low-fat meals.

Since the rule went into effect in 2011, schools have cut the sodium content of their cafeteria meals by more than 50%, been serving only low-fat or fat-free milk, serving more portions of whole grain foods, and no longer serving french fries every day. In addition, schools are now serving no more than one cup of starchy vegetables per week.

But Do Kids Like Them? The ‘Plate Waste’ Problem

While acknowledging it needed more data to be sure, the GAO did find some strong evidence that the kids are not particularly thrilled with the more nutritious meals.

For example, officials of local School Food Authorities (SFAs) in 48 states told the GAO they had seen a significant amount of “plate waste” – students taking the required food selections, but not eating them – since they started serving the healthier meals.

Fruits and Veggies Pose the Biggest Challenge

Problem is, you can’t tell a kid in a school cafeteria, “You’re not leaving the table until you eat those beets.”

As you might expect, fruits and vegetables were the foods most often left uneaten. In 7 of the 17 schools GAO investigators visited during 2012-2013, “many” students were seen throwing away some or all of their fruits and vegetables at lunch.

However, the GAO reported that plate waste may be decreasing slightly as students and school cafeterias adjust to meals that meet the new requirements.

When the GAO visited schools during school years 2014-2015, their investigators saw that plate waste was “generally limited to a small number of students throwing away some of their fruits and vegetables in 7 of the 14 schools.”

A Learning Process for Schools, Too

GAO suggested that the way school cafeterias prepare meals may be helping to reduce fruit and vegetable waste in some schools. In fact, five schools reported difficulty serving certain required food items in ways that appeal to students.

For example, three schools told the GAO they had noticed that some of their younger students found it hard to eat whole fruit during their school’s lunch period. One school found that serving pre-cut, rather than whole fruit, significantly reduced wasted fruit among their elementary and middle school students.

When it comes to sodium, all of the school and food companies interviewed by the GAO expressed concerns over their ability to meet the future stricter sodium reduction requirements to be phased in by 2024. GAO reported it would closely monitor their progress in reducing sodium levels.

Under current law, however, the USDA is not allowed to implement these future reductions in sodium content until the “latest scientific research” proves that they are beneficial to children, noted the GAO.

Fewer Schools Serving Government Lunches

In another sign that healthier school meals are not going over too well, the GAO found that fewer schools and individual children are choosing to take part in the USDA’s school lunch program.

Since the 2010-2011 school year, participation in the National School Lunch Program has declined by 4.5% or about 1.4 million children.

Seven of the eight states interviewed by the GAO stated that problems with student acceptance of the federally-required menu changes had contributed to the decrease. In addition, four of the eight states noted that the required increases in the price of lunch may have decreased participation among some students.

The GAO issued no recommendation related to its report.