Nationwide, student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students (or 3.7 percent) from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2012-2013, after having increased steadily for many years. This decrease was driven primarily by a decline of 1.6 million students eating school lunch who pay full price for meals, despite increases in students eating school lunch who receive free meals. State and local officials reported that the changes to lunch content and nutrition requirements, as well as other factors, influenced student participation. For example, almost all states reported through GAO’s national survey that obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging during school year 2012-2013, which likely affected participation in the program. Federal, state, and local officials reported that federally-required increases to lunch prices, which affected many districts, also likely influenced participation.
School food authorities (SFA) faced several challenges implementing the new lunch content and nutrition requirements in school year 2012-2013. For example, most states reported that SFAs faced challenges with addressing plate waste–or foods thrown away rather than consumed by students–and managing food costs, as well as planning menus and obtaining foods that complied with portion size and calorie requirements. SFAs that GAO visited also cited these challenges. However, both states and SFAs reported that they expect many of these areas will become less challenging over time, with the exceptions of food costs, insufficient food storage and kitchen equipment, and the forthcoming limits on sodium in lunches.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided a substantial amount of guidance and training to help with implementation of the lunch changes and program oversight, but certain aspects of USDA’s guidance may hinder state oversight of compliance.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have zero problems with the First Lady of the United States championing a family-oriented cause like childhood obesity, because it is a problem, and a costly one at that. Raising awareness, courting charities and nonprofit donations, using some of that star power to nudge businesses and school districts in the right direction, etcetera? It’s all golden, but liberals’ chosen methods for dealing with perceived problems — i.e., federally-led, top-down legislation that interferes into the tiniest details of local governance — is likely to result in a lot of unintended consequences, inefficiencies, and general impotence. For instance: Parents sending their kids to school with bagged lunches instead because they feel they aren’t getting enough to eat, and the payments into the program subsequently shrinking; kids dumping their quinoa and grapefruit salads in the garbage uneaten (and perhaps doing some black-market junk-food trading on the side); and school districts having trouble finding a way to pay for all of this more expensive food — all of which the GAO report essentially concludes were among the direct results of the like the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act that created these new school-lunch nutrition standards. I’m sure it was all done with the loveliest of intentions, truly, but is it actually going to produce results in the long run that will make the added expenses worthwhile? The GAO thinks participation numbers might pick back up sometime in the future, but so far, it’s not looking too good. Perhaps economic growth — i.e., the one thing that truly spreads affluence around and thereby helps promote a culture of health-consciousness and frees up the time and money to afford it — should be the number-one order of the day, no?