Student Well-Being

Nutrition Standards Not Cause of Drop in School Lunch Participation, Analysis Says

By Evie Blad — January 14, 2015 3 min read
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Declining participation in the National School Lunch Program was not caused by the implementation of more-stringent nutrition standards, an analysis by the Food Research and Action Center says.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that school lunch participation increased from 28.9 million students on an average day in the 2003-2004 school year to an all-time high of 31.8 million in 2010-2011 before it dropped to 30.3 million in 2013-2014.

The analysis, released Wednesday, seeks to counter the claims of critics of the standards, who’ve argued that challenges in implementing required reductions in fat, salt, and calories and increases in fresh produce and whole grains have forced school cooks to create unpalatable meals that students just won’t eat.

“In fact, for several years, including the years predating the implementation of the new standards, participation has been rising among low-income children and declining among children not eligible for free or reduced-price meals,” the analysis says. “These trends have persisted since the new standards took effect. There are larger factors at play than the school nutrition standards.”

Why the drop, then?

Since the recession kicked off during the 2007-2008 school year, the number of children who eat free or reduced-priced meals has increased, in part due to more children who meet the criteria and in part due to more schools adopting community eligibility, which allows them to provide free meals to all students, the analysis says.

“Over the same time period, there has been a decline in participation among children not eligible for free or reduced price meals but required to pay most of the cost themselves—referred to as ‘paid meals,’ ” the analysis says. “This trend also began long before the 2012-2013 school year, which is when the nutrition improvements included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 were introduced in schools. Instead, a variety of other factors contributed to the decrease, including rising charges for lunches served to children not receiving free or reduced-price meals. The timing of these trends, and the rise in participation among the largest group of children in the program, strongly suggest that the new nutrition standards are not causing significant participation trends.”

This chart, pulled from the report, shows the trends.

So how can schools encourage students to eat lunches?

The analysis recommends the following:

  • The USDA should explore changes to the Paid Lunch Equity Provision. That provision set requirements for what portion of school meal programs needed to be financed with funds not derived from free or reduced-price meal reimbursements. The aim was to maintain high-quality meals and to ensure that schools weren’t using those reimbursements to subsidize the cost of meals for full-pay students. As a result, most schools increased the price of their lunches, driving some students to seek alternatives.
  • Officials should ensure implementation of the Smart Snacks in Schools competitive foods rules. Advocates believe implementation of the rules, which set nutrition standards for snacks, vending machine products, and a la carte items served in schools, will take away unhealthy alternatives and drive more students to participate in school meal programs.
  • The USDA should provide technical assistance to schools that are struggling to implement the new meal standards.
  • Encourage more schools to adopt the community-eligibility provision and to ensure that qualifying students are enrolled to receive free meals.

Not everyone agrees with the analysis.

The School Nutrition Association, the chief backer of proposed waivers from the standards, said in a statement that it’s incorrect to assert that new nutrition rules haven’t affected lunch participation:

This report ignores the fact that 1.4 million fewer students are participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) each day since the new nutrition standards took effect, according to USDA. This trend threatens the financial stability of school meal programs and the ability to better serve students. Without a doubt, economic trends and efforts to reach more low-income students have caused a redistribution of students from the paid meal category to the free and reduced-price category. However, despite this trend the NSLP had enjoyed steady overall growth until fiscal year 2012, which marked the first decline in total daily participation since 1990. It wasn't until USDA's new rules took effect that total student lunch participation began to free fall, despite increasing student enrollment in participating schools. More students have access to school meals but fewer are buying them—a troubling trend that increases the stigma on students who rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. In fact, a recent SNA survey found that 75 percent of school meal program operators cited decreases in student lunch participation as a 'serious' or 'moderate' challenge to their program. Increased food waste, sodium mandates, and other problems directly connected to implementation of the new standards were also cited as top challenges for the overwhelming majority of respondents."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.