WASHINGTON, D.C. | June 27, 2013 -
In 2010, the Democratic Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 and required the United States Department of Agriculture to issue several regulations for schools and districts participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. While well-intended, these new regulations have essentially put the federal government in the business of dictating the type, amount, and even color of food that can and cannot be served in school cafeterias.
Under the USDA’s new rules, participating schools are required to limit the calorie intake of elementary and high school students, even those enrolled in athletic programs; provide certain fruits and vegetables regardless of cost or availability; design meals around certain mandated ‘color categories’ and strict protein and grain limits; and dramatically reduce sodium content over the next ten years. Thankfully, USDA agreed to temporarily suspend its weekly limits on protein and grain servings after an outcry from local school officials and parents, but schools need long-term certainty and relief from these burdensome regulations.
In Indiana, my home state, more than 500,000 Hoosier students are eligible for free and reduced meals through the USDA – more than 47% of the entire student population. While we want to ensure that eligible students who need access have it, this number is alarming and is an issue we will explore in the future.
But 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.
Because the law requires students to take fruits and vegetables for lunch, even if they have no intention of eating them, schools are struggling with increased waste. After implementing the new standards a year early, one Florida school district estimated students threw out $75,000 worth of food.
At Dedham High School in Massachusetts, providing the required vegetables in 1500 meals each week costs the district about $111 a day – but administrators report many students just throw the fresh vegetables right into the trash.
Smaller portions, limited options, and unappetizing entrees have caused some students to protest new cafeteria food. High school students, athletes in particular, claim the calorie limits leave them hungry, and have resorted to bringing additional meals and snacks from home. Other students have simply stopped participating in the school lunch program altogether. According to the USDA in February, the average daily participation in the school lunch program had dropped about 3 percent in the past year.
In one New York school district, the number of kids buying lunch dropped by half just four months after the implementation of new federal guidelines. This decline in participation made it more difficult for the school to afford to serve lunches and breakfasts that met the federal meal requirements. As a result, the district’s food operation went $59,000 in the red and local leaders ultimately decided to opt-out of the National School Lunch Program.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service estimated the cost of compliance with new nutrition standards will reach $3.2 billion over the next five years. With states already facing large budget deficits, these regulations are placing an unnecessary burden on schools and districts at the expense of low-and middle-income students.
Making matters worse, schools are now bracing themselves for additional regulations over “competitive foods” – the snacks, beverages, and meals sold in schools not subject to reimbursement by the federal government. This means the government would also be put in charge of mandating the type of foods that can be sold at school events, in vending machines, at snack bars, and so forth, piling more costs and requirements on school districts.
The National Lunch and Breakfast programs are critical to ensuring low-income students have access to healthy and affordable meals, but costly regulations dictated from the federal government could reduce participation in these important programs. As policymakers, we have a responsibility to discuss the concerns raised by students, parents, and school administrators as we work to put these programs on a more sustainable path for the future.
# # #