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Are Schools Really Abandoning the National School Lunch Program in Droves?
By Lori Zanteson

Since the new National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines went into effect, school cafeterias across the nation have met difficult challenges while trying to ensure America’s children receive healthier meals each day. No stranger to criticism, however, the NSLP was hit with yet another media backlash this back-to-school season.

According to an Associated Press (AP) article, schools are dropping out of the NSLP because they’ve lost a significant amount of revenue. Kids either have stopped buying school meals in favor of bringing their lunches from home or are wasting the food because they don’t like what’s being served.

However, the controversy isn’t about whether the new lunch guidelines have been effective but whether the information in the AP article is accurate. As challenging as it was for schools to meet the new guidelines, other sources contend there’s hardly a national dropout trend among school districts.

Tall Order
“Foodservice directors were angry and frustrated” last year as they implemented the new federal school lunch guidelines, says Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS, the nutrition committee chair for the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and director of food and nutrition services for Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia. The issue wasn’t so much about the new meal pattern, which foodservice professionals knew was coming and previously prepared for, but the amount of time given to implement it. “Rather than make it interim—to give us one year—they made it a final rule,” she says.

Menus had to be changed and manufacturers had to supply ingredients and foods to comply with the new guidelines—quickly and continually—to meet the healthier and stricter standards. One of the steepest challenges was to avoid exceeding the maximum limits set for grains and proteins. Before the new guidelines took effect, a cheeseburger or a sandwich was part of a typical meal—but not under the new rules. The cheese added to the meat patty surpassed the protein allotment, and the grain maximum didn’t allow for more than one slice of bread. “The kids thought this was crazy,” Domokos-Bays says.

After several protests that these meals were leaving kids hungry and the airing of the “We Are Hungry” video on YouTube that went viral, the USDA temporarily lifted those maximums on grains and proteins but kept the calorie limits.

Another challenge under the new standards was meeting the mandatory fruit or vegetable requirements for each meal. According to Domokos-Bays, about 30% of children in the Alexandria school district chose a fruit or vegetable with their lunch before the new ruling. Suddenly, it became mandatory that 100% of kids had to choose a fruit or vegetable, most of which went into the trash. “The result was that our food costs went up,” she says. “Plus, we experienced the drought, which meant [food] prices went up. You had this kind of perfect storm that came together last year.”

Misleading Reporting
While some schools have dropped out of the NSLP, the majority that rely on government reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals don’t have this option. Despite headlines, Domokos-Bays says the number of schools dropping out of the program this year isn’t statistically different from previous years.

The numbers, according to the AP story, came from the 2013 Back to School Trends Survey conducted by the SNA, which found that 1% of 521 school district nutrition directors surveyed planned to remove their districts from the program this year and that 3% were considering it.

The SNA posted a clarification on its website, explaining that the online survey netted 521 member responses to the question of whether districts planned to drop any of their schools from the NSLP for the 2013-2014 school year. According to the SNA, “The vast majority of respondents (92.7%) reported that they do not plan, nor are considering, dropping any schools from NSLP, clearly indicating that there’s no national trend of schools dropping out. Only 1% of respondents reported that they plan on having a school drop NSLP and only 3.3% reported that they’re considering having a school drop NSLP. The survey didn’t ask participants to quantify the number of schools in their district planning or considering to drop out of the NSLP.”

Progressive Change
“People are much more likely to glom onto a negative headline than a positive one,” says Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, founder of School Meals That Rock, a website that showcases innovative school nutrition programs. Hayes, who consults countrywide on school nutrition issues with the USDA and various school districts, views this as a small issue.

She agrees that last year was a struggle for many schools and manufacturers trying to comply with the new guidelines and the constant changes from the USDA. However, the reality is that “people really are stepping up to the tray and making those changes,” Hayes says. “From coast to coast, I’ve seen it. I’m going to schools, visiting cafeterias, eating with kids, and I’ve seen remarkable examples.”

In one school cafeteria in Oregon, Hayes says kids are putting heirloom tomatoes and other healthful toppings on their hamburgers. At others, quinoa salads are offered at salad bars, and the culinary skills of cafeteria staff are becoming more upscale, which is vital for today’s move toward scratch cooking.

Hayes says some larger school districts, such as in Denver, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, are even using school grounds to grow food to supply their cafeterias. These aren’t small learning gardens but large-scale gardens that farmers maintain. These days, it isn’t unusual for a more progressive district to source its food from its own community. Montana, for example, hosted a beef-to-school summit to ensure the beef on the students’ trays came from the cattle grazing in the pasture behind the school.

The Successes Outweigh the Failures
No matter how the NSLP makes headlines, RDs agree that the successes are many among school nutrition professionals who have gone beyond the challenge of meeting the long list of new guidelines in a short time. This new school year brings with it the advantage of last year’s experience, a position that has most directors feeling much better than they did before, Domokos-Bays says.

— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in southern California.