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GAO Flunks School Lunches On Nutritional-Standard Test

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While controversy continues over the Reagan Administration's proposed nutritional cuts in school-lunch programs, a new report from the Government Accounting Office (gao) suggests that some schools are already failing to meet existing nutritional requirements.

The report, Efforts To Improve School Lunch Programs--Are They Paying Off?, is based on a survey of seven school districts around the country. The survey was conducted by gao, the investigative office of the Congress.

According to a gao spokesman, the report was initiated by the agency in part to follow up a 1977 report that examined elementary-school lunches. The gao also wanted to look at high schools with innovative lunch programs, to see if they are doing something that other districts might want to adopt, the spokesman said.

The study covers the 1979-1980 school year, but compares it with several years prior to the start of the districts' new programs.

Each of the districts in the survey had adopted "special" lunch menus--fast-food, a salad bar, or variations on conventional plans. But while they followed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (usda) requirements for the type and amount of food they served, all of the districts failed to provide students with the government's recommended dietary allowance (rda), based on standards established by the National Academy of Sciences.

The long-time goal of the 35-year-old National School Lunch Program has been to provide participants with one-third of their daily nutritional requirements.

"All [lunch] formats had problems providing the recommended levels of seven of the 14 nutrients included in the analysis--folacin, vitamin B-6, iron, thiamin, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin C--some to a serious extent," according to the report.

All the menus, the gao report said, showed serious iron deficiencies, particularly the salad and fast-food menus. The deficiencies may pose no health risk, the report noted, since students also eat at other times of the day and may make up the deficiencies then.

It would be difficult, and perhaps not feasible, to upgrade the nutritional quality of school lunches, the report says.

But, it continues, "If usda believes that meeting a specified rda goal is important," department officials should take steps to make sure that schools can meet the goal without unduly increasing cost and "plate-waste," and decreasing student participation.

If, on the other hand, usda officials are willing to abandon the program's long-standing nutritional goals, they should make that clear, the report asserts.

The gao investigation also revealed some more positive changes in the quality of school-lunch programs. In the three districts where it was possible to compare student participation before and after lunch officials expanded food choices and improved the "eating environment," student participation jumped between 7 and 18 percentage points.

The fast-food and salad-bar menus also decreased plate-waste, according to the gao report, as did the "offer-versus-serve" method. Also, the innovative programs did not increase costs.

The gao investigators recommend, in essence, that usda officials decide how important it is to provide some specified amount of students' rda

If this goal is found "unnecessary or impractical" within acceptable limits of cost and other factors, "the goal should be dropped and the program should operate simply on the basis of providing a variety of foods within a specified meal-pattern or some other achievable criteria," the report notes.

Maintaining Nutritional Goals

If the usda decides to keep nutritional goals, gao investigators have several suggestions--a few of which are similar to changes proposed by usda on Sept. 4. gao suggests, for example, that school-lunch officials could require that different quantities of food be served to different age groups. But the report also recommends the following additional methods of achieving and maintaining nutritional goals:

Specifying certain foods that must be served;

Expanding the menu-planning guide to include lists of foods that contain nutrients not currently listed;

Providing guidance on minimizing loss of nutrients through preparation and storage;

Implementing "the computer-assisted nutrient standard menu planning system nationwide" after working with school districts currently testing the system to reduce the differences in expected and actual nutrient content of computer-planned meals.

Efforts To Improve School Lunch Programs will probably be added to critics' arsenal of anti-budget-cutting weapons. The report was also expected to be cited by witnesses testifying at school-lunch hearings held by the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education late last week.

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