Nearly eight in ten school districts have had to find ways to offset financial losses in their school lunch programs since the first lady’s prized healthy school lunch rules took effect in 2012, a School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey released Tuesday found.
Almost half, 49 percent, of districts surveyed cut staff; 41 percent depleted their program’s reserve fund that’s used for investing in program improvements; 36 percent limited menu choices; and 32 percent deferred or canceled equipment investments, the survey of SNA members showed.
The group has been lobbying Congress to roll back provisions of the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act when it reauthorizes the law this fall. SNA members say student participation has declined, since they’ve been forced to drastically lower sodium content, serve 100 percent whole-grain rich products and force students to take a half-cup of fruit or vegetables with every meal.
Of 1,100 districts that responded to the survey, the SNA said 58 percent reported a decline in student lunch participation, of which nearly 93 percent cited “decreased student acceptance of meals” as a reason for the decline. Schools with a low percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals appeared to stuggle most, reporting a 72 percent decline in program participation.
While the SNA said it supports a majority of the provisions in the law — caps on calories, saturated and trans fats and mandates to offer larger servings and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables — it has asked lawmakers to suspend further sodium reductions and revert back to the 2010 standard that requires only half of all grains offered to be whole-grain rich.
“School nutrition standards have resulted in many positive changes, but we cannot ignore the repercussions — the financial impact of these rules threatens school meal programs and their efforts to better serve students,” Jean Ronnei, SNA’s president, said in a news release. “To ensure programs remain financially sustainable for the children they serve, Congress must provide more funding and reasonable flexibility under the most stringent rules.”