Schools are having a difficult time meeting new federal requirements for leaner student lunches championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and in some cases are adding less healthy foods to meet calorie limits, investigators have found.
The problems are so widespread that the Government Accountability Office is recommending that the Agriculture Department ease or change some requirements to avoid the unexpected consequences of Mrs. Obama's signature effort to address childhood obesity.
“Because of the meat and grain maximums, some districts made menu decisions that are inconsistent with the goal of improving children’s diets, as they added desserts and condiments that increased the amount of sugar, salt or fat in lunches in order to comply with the required calorie minimums,” the GAO reported in the first substantial review of how school districts are implementing school lunch requirements under child nutrition laws passed by Congress in 2010.
GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, spot checked several school districts and found schools, food distributors and students are all facing challenges.
“School districts faced several challenges implementing the new lunch requirements in school year 2012-2013, according to the eight districts GAO visited and food service and industry officials GAO interviewed from across the country,” the watchdog agency said.
One of the biggest complications for schools is staying within the new law’s meat, grain and calorie limits, which affect the types of food a school is able to serve and the portion sizes food suppliers are able to produce.
The regulations are even leading some schools to substitute healthy food for less-healthy options to meet the requirements:
•Shredded cheese is being replaced with processed cheese sauce because the sauce is not considered a meat alternative.
•Pudding, gelatin, ice cream, butter and ranch dressing are added to meals to meet minimum calorie requirements.
•Whole grain chips are replaced with potato chips because potatoes aren’t considered a grain.
The meat and grain limits have been temporarily suspended, but are slated to start again next year. The GAO recommended the regulations be removed permanently.
The Agriculture Department agreed that a permanent decision is needed, and said it is launching its own review of the new lunches policies.
“USDA also expressed concern that the findings in the testimony did not reflect a nationally representative sample of school districts,” the report said.
Meanwhile, some students haven't been accepting of the new regulations. The GAO said lunch items such as sub rolls, tortillas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are being cut back or abolished completely, while food suppliers were forced to create a hamburger patty small enough to stay under the meat maximum requirements. Whole-grain pasta and legumes are replacing the foods.
Such changes led some schools to report a significant decrease in students who ate lunches, and at one school students even led a 3-week boycott of school meals, the GAO said.
Some student athletes reported the new lunches left them hungry, and teachers have complained that students were significantly more tired during the last two periods of the day because of the new lunches.
The way schools determine what amount of meat, grains, vegetables and total calories each student should receive is by dividing them into three groups based on grade level — kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth grade through eighth grade, and ninth grade through 12th grade. Under the current rules, height and weight are never taken into consideration.
USDA said that while it faces challenges in providing nutrition based on height and weight, a child’s age was still one of the most important factors in determining their food requirements, a statement echoed by nutritional experts.
Healthy eating advocates say the new regulations will help fight childhood obesity, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say has doubled in the last 30 years - and tripled among teenagers.
Mrs. Obama recently visited a school in Alexandria, Va., to show off the final product of the school lunch revamping she helped crusade.
“That's why as a mom myself, I am so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students and reinforcing the work we do at home to help our kids stay healthy,” the first lady said.
The GAO said that many of the early problems are growing pains and will be resolved over time. Investigators noted many students had positive things to say about the greater number of vegetables and smaller portion sizes, and they expect that number to grow over time.