By Kyle Olson
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A newly released report by the Government Accountability Office finds numerous problems have been created by the National School Lunch Program overhaul pushed by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Those problems have been magnified in recent weeks, as several school districts across the nation have either dropped out of the voluntary federal lunch program or have increased prices of school lunches to make up for a drop in sales attributed to federal menu changes.
The report, presented to a subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee, detailed visits to eight school districts by GAO bureaucrats to see the impact of the regulations.
“Although the eight districts GAO visited expressed support for the improvements to the nutritional quality of school lunch, they reported additional challenges meeting the new requirements, such as student acceptance, food waste, costs, and participation,” the report states.
The report notes the absurd conflicts and inconsistencies created by the changes. For example, cheeseburgers were removed from one district’s elementary and middle school lunch menus because adding cheese to the burger “would have made it difficult to stay within the weekly meat maximums.” Another district switched from shredded cheese to cheese sauce because the liquid cheese “does not count as a meat alternate.”
Cheese is cheese, unless you’re writing government regulations, apparently.
Similarly, another school district switched from whole grain chips to potato chips because “the potato chip did not count as a grain.”
The report also found schools didn’t necessarily increase healthy options for students.
“To comply with both the meat and grain maximums and the required calorie minimums for lunches, some districts added foods that generally did not improve the nutritional value of the lunches.
“In three of the districts we visited, the [School Food Authorities] reported adding pudding to certain high school menus to bring the menus into compliance with the calorie minimum. Some SFAs also added gelatin, ice cream, or condiments such as butter, jelly, ranch dressing or cheese sauce to become complaint. … While these additional menu items provided needed calories to lunches, they also likely increased the amount of sugar, sodium, or fat in the meal, potentially undercutting the federal law’s goal of improving the nutritional quality of lunches.”
Some districts tried to keep their students’ taste buds happy by offering them a shadow of their previous helpings.
One district wanted to continue offering cheeseburgers and in order to operate within the regulations, it created a 1.5 ounce burger patty – “which is less than half the size of a ¼ pound burger,” the report notes.
Is it any wonder students are left hungry?
School districts noted the difficulty in complying with the calorie maximums for students based on grade, as students from varying grades use the same cafeteria lines. They fear the rigid rules will lead to “increased costs and administrative burden.”
Another problem created by the regulations is food waste.
“Food waste is also an indicator of lack of student acceptance of the new lunch requirements,” the report states.
Six of the eight schools “we visited told us they believe food waste has increased because of the new lunch requirements. In particular, (school officials) said that the fruits and vegetables students are now required to take sometimes end up thrown away, and in our lunch period observations in 7 of 7 schools, we saw many students throw some or all of their fruits and vegetables away,” the study finds.
The GAO report found the changes were leaving some students hungry.
“…Athletic coaches expressed concerns that student athletes were hungrier after school than they were in previous years and staff reported that more students were distracted during the final period of the school day than in previous years.”
The report concludes those new problems are a result of “decreased entrée sizes.”
Where the black bean burger meets the mouth
The Fairfield, Connecticut school district will be raising its lunch prices to deal with the changes. Due to a combination of increasing employee pension costs, and a 20 percent decline in food sales, the district will be raising prices by 10 cents per meal.
The Fairfield Daily Voice reported the food service program “hopes to persuade more students to buy lunches in school,” to offset the financial losses.
The paper noted the new regulations “included portion limits and requiring each student to take at least one fruit or vegetable.”
“Not only here in Fairfield, but throughout the state and across the United States, a lot of students rejected … being forced to have to take something,” Food Services Department head John White told the paper.
School officials hope hanging posters with fun facts about the healthy foods will generate “a lot of excitement” about the changes.
Call us skeptical, but seeing a picture and some “fun facts” about a black bean burger wouldn’t make us any more likely to eat it.
Similarly, Portsmouth, New Hampshire schools are raising prices by 25 cents per meal, citing “dwindling participation” in the lunch program.
The New York district, Burnt Hills-Balston Lake, dropped out of the federal lunch program altogether. The Catlin, Illinois district recently made the same move.
Are these just growing pains or were new problems unnecessarily created by Mrs. Obama and Washington, D.C. bureaucrats? Time will tell.
A Congressional hearing took place in late June to address the problems created by the federal lunch standards. Congressman Todd Rokita (R-IN), who was chairman of the hearing, said, “…Today we are looking at the cost of burdensome regulations. Providing students healthier meals is a laudable goal we all share, but the stringent rules are creating serious headaches for schools and students.”
EAGnews attempted to contact both Rokita, as well as staff of the Education and Workforce Committee, to determine if there would be legislative action on the problems. Those phone calls and emails went unreturned.
But if there is congressional action, it isn’t coming a moment too soon.