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Education & Labor Committee Republicans

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Witnesses Confirm Federal School Meal Regulations Spark Higher Costs, Reduced Participation

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), today held a hearing to examine the effects of new federal school meal program regulations issued by the Department of Agriculture under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. During the hearing, a panel of school nutrition experts described the challenges these regulations have created for schools and districts. 

“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,” Rep. Rokita said in his opening remarks. “Providing students healthier meals is a laudable goal we all share, but the stringent rules are creating serious headaches for schools and students.”

As Sandra Ford, Director of Food and Nutrition Services of the Manatee County School District, succinctly stated, “Complex regulations sometimes lead to unintended consequences.” Ms. Ford explained the new requirements have “significantly increased the expense of preparing school meals, at a time when food costs were already on the rise.” She also noted new limits on meat and grain servings have restricted cafeteria menus and forced schools to replace popular lunch options and reduce serving portions. “Under the new standards, schools could no longer offer daily sandwich choices because serving two slices of whole grain bread each day exceeds weekly grain limits,” Ms. Ford said.

Unsatisfied with the new meal choices, a growing number of students have decided to opt-out of the school lunch program and instead bring meals from home. Megan Schaper, Food Service Director of the State College Area School District of Pennsylvania, explained, “Higher meal prices combined with less satisfaction with the meals in general deal the proverbial one-two punch to the participation levels in many districts.” Ms. Schaper stated participation has dropped by 3 percent in her school district this year and 9 percent across the state.

Such declines in participation mean decreased revenues for states already struggling to meet budgetary constraints. In Manatee County School District, where lunch participation has dropped from 71 percent to 68 percent, Ms. Ford anticipates total revenue will be down by about $500,000 at the end of 2013.

To better understand the implications of the federal school meal regulations, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) visited eight districts in an ongoing study of the implementation of the new regulations. Kay Brown, GAO’s Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, testified about the findings of the study. “The new limits on the amounts of grains and meats or meat alternates led officials in all 8 districts to modify or eliminate some popular menu items,” Ms. Brown said. “School food officials in 5 of the districts we visited told us it was difficult to meet the minimum calorie requirements for grades 9-12 while also adhering to the meat and grain limits.” Additionally, Mrs. Brown stated school food officials in each district expressed concerns about the requirements’ effect on their financial stability.

“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,” Rep. Rokita concluded. “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.”

To read witness testimony, opening statements, or watch an archived webcast of today’s hearing, visit www.edworkforce.house.gov/hearings.


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