Following the implementation of sweeping reforms to school lunch standards for the 2012-2013 school year, the Government Accountability Office found not all changes were beneficial, according to a report released Thursday.
Through a study of eight school districts, GAO found that maximum calorie counts and food waste concerns were among the biggest complaints with the program, even though the districts support the program's overarching purpose – to provide fewer foods with fats, sodium and sugars.
The maximum meat and grain calorie counts challenged many school districts and led to complaints from administrators and lawmakers alike due to flexibility issues. When the rule was implemented, calorie count ranges for grades 6-8 and 9-12 didn't overlap – meaning schools that serve students from grades 7-9, for example, would be out of compliance if the same lunch was offered for all grades.
In response to complaints, the max counts were dropped temporarily for the second half of the school year and the 2013-2014 school year.
But GAO says this change should remain permanent. The max calorie counts, the report argues, are impractical for schools that serve many ages of students and make menu planning difficult.
The GAO reports that the USDA generally agreed with its recommendation that the meat and grain maximum caps be removed.
Another difficulty the GAO report cited was students reacting negatively to modified lunch items or elimination of popular lunch items.
"USDA requires that meals include whole grain-rich products and certain vegetables, but most districts noted that obtaining student acceptance of foods like whole grain pasta and beans has been challenging," the report said. "If students do not accept these items, the result may be increased food waste or decreased participation in the lunch program, which were concerns in most districts GAO visited."
Though acceptance is a concern, GAO further noted that overall, "many students’ positive comments on healthy foods, their views that school lunches generally provide such foods, and their consumption of sizeable quantities of fruits and vegetables in the majority of schools we visited indicate that acceptance of the new lunch requirements will improve over time."
The GAO conducted the review between March and May, 2013, using districts with a variety food service distribution styles and geographic locales.
The school lunch program served 31.6 million children in fiscal 2012 through $11.6 billion in federal supports.
Read the GAO's full report, School Lunch: Modifications Needed to Some of the New Nutrition Standards