Healthy school lunches face tough taste test

USDA says 1 million fewer students are eating federal lunches since 2012

CNN News Wire | 8/19/2014, 3:58 p.m.
USDA says 1 million fewer students are eating federal lunches since 2012

Students in Gainesville, Georgia, are likely eating a better lunch than you today. On the menu in their cafeterias? Chicken salad on a bed of spinach with strawberries and Mandarin oranges. Boneless wings. Brunch for lunch.

Roughly 76% of students in Gainesville City Schools qualify for free or reduced-cost meals under the National School Lunch Program. Since the program's nutritional guidelines went into place in 2012, school administrators have been getting creative with their food program to create meals children like.

"Taste testing is where it's at," said Penny Fowler, the district's director of school nutrition. "They're your customers. It's like running a business."

Fowler said the school district has had to challenge itself under the guidelines, which are entering a third school year this fall. The ultimate goal is to reduce childhood obesity, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in 30 years.

Gone are the days of mystery meats and grilled cheese on white bread. Instead, participating schools in the federal lunch program are required to serve skim or low-fat milk, add more whole grains, include a fruit and vegetable at each meal and prepare food with zero grams of trans fat per serving. Calorie and sodium limitations are also in place.

"With one-third of American children obese or overweight, members in both parties agreed that Americans' tax dollars should fund healthy and wholesome food," said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

About 90% of schools are now in compliance with the new guidelines, according to the USDA, with students eating about 16% more vegetables and 23% more fruit on a daily basis. But there's been controversy over the program's implications for school food budgets.

The USDA says 1 million fewer students nationwide are eating federal school lunches since the guidelines were enacted in 2012 -- either by personal choice, or because their schools have opted out of the lunch program altogether.

What it really comes down to, experts say, is money. Wealthier school districts can turn down federal reimbursements if their students aren't enjoying the healthier fare. Districts with more students who qualify for the program, such as in Gainesville, often don't have a choice.

Economics of school lunch

Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program was created to provide free or low-cost meals to students. Although the program is optional in most states, the federal reimbursement for students' meals is so significant that some schools find it too expensive to run programs on their own, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, ‎director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association, a national organization of school nutrition professionals.

The School Nutrition Association was instrumental in helping the Obama administration put these new nutrition guidelines in place; now the organization is lobbying for schools to be allowed to opt out. Opponents say food companies are working behind the scenes, trying to keep their less-healthy items on the menu longer.