More Than 1 Million Kids Skip Michelle Obama-Planned School Lunches

Image: More Than 1 Million Kids Skip Michelle Obama-Planned School Lunches

Friday, 07 Mar 2014 08:04 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The nation's schoolchildren are finding first lady Michelle Obama's changes to their school lunches hard to swallow, with federal government rules making the menus either so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million children are no longer buying them.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday, school districts say they believe students are going hungry because of the smaller portions in the school lunches, and some cafeterias say the fruits and vegetables they are required to serve often end up in trash cans.

The decrease, the congressional watchdog office said, was fueled primarily by a decline of 1.6 million students who pay full price for their school lunch. The numbers of children eating free lunches has risen, though, because of federal changes, which in turn has increased costs for families that pay for lunches.

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"State and local officials reported that the changes to lunch content and nutrition requirements, as well as other factors, influenced student participation," the report said. "Federal, state, and local officials reported that federally required increases to lunch prices, which affected many districts, also likely influenced participation. "

The $11 billion National School Lunch Program was implemented as part of the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010," a law pushed by the first lady as part of her signature campaign to fight childhood obesity.

It works by reimbursing schools for the meals served as well as provides access to food at lower prices.

"Because of this act ... 32 million children get more of the nutrition they need to learn and grow and be successful and I do hope it's delicious — we're working on that, yes, indeed," Obama said last year.

But school food authorities told GAO investigators they are now facing challenges with wasted food, as well as in planning menus and getting foods that comply with portion size and calorie requirements.

The states did say they expect the school lunch issues 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."

Under the new school lunch rules, which were written by the Agriculture Department and championed by Michelle Obama, lunch trays must have at least a half-cup of fruits or vegetables, and milk must contain no more than 1 percent fat. 

Foods containing trans fats are also banned in school lunches, and higher minimum calorie levels must be met, despite the lower-calorie fruits, vegetables, and portion sizes, leading one unnamed school district to admit to the GAO that it sometimes adds pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the calorie guidelines.

The lunch changes are leading some students who don't bring their own lunches to skip the school's midday meal. In some cases they are buying food from vending machines, picking their favorites from a la carte lines in cafeterias, or going off campus to eat, if allowed.

One of the schools surveyed has stopped allowing students to get lunch off campus, which may increase the likelihood they'll start buying lunch at school, said the GAO.

Some schools complained that the new rules require switching from canned to fresh produce, meaning that more frequent shipments are needed, increasing the likelihood of workplace injuries.

"Staff in one [school food authority] noted that the increased amount of time and effort to prepare fruits and vegetables also led to morale issues when staff saw students throw the fruits and vegetables in the trash," the report said.

GAO investigators visited districts in Caddo Parish Public Schools, Louisiana; Carlisle Area School District in Pennsylvania; Chicago Public Schools; Coeur d'Alene School District, Idaho; Irving Independent School District; Texas, Mukwonago Area School District, Wisconsin; Spokane Public Schools, Washington; and Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia.

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