Why Some Schools Are Saying ‘No Thanks’ to the School-Lunch Program

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UPDATED* States are reporting that some of their schools are dropping out of the healthier school-lunch program because they can’t afford to participate. But does that really mean nutritious school lunches (and snacks) are doomed?

The majority of the nation’s schools — about 94% — are participating in the National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for the meals they serve and provides food at lower cost to feed lower-income students. These schools must follow new criteria required by the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, and include more grains, fresh fruits and vegetables in lunches. But for some, these changes are pretty challenging to follow.

In a survey conducted this summer of more than 520 district nutrition directors, the School Nutrition Association reported that a very small percentage — 1% — of schools were dropping out of the program for the 2013–14 school year, and 3% were considering abandoning the program.

(MORE: What the New USDA Rules for Healthier School Snacks Mean for Schools)

Why? Kids aren’t buying the better-for-them options in the cafeteria, and that’s leading to a drop in revenue for some schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pays schools back about $2.93 cents per lunch served to a child eligible for free meals, and the USDA offers an additional 6¢ per lunch for schools meeting the standards. But for smaller or nonprofit private schools that simply don’t have enough kids who qualify for these lunches, the often higher costs to feed them healthy meals that adhere to the new nutrition guidelines are not covered by this reimbursement.

“My understanding, from a few of the districts that have dropped off, is that their free and reduced percentage could be as low as 5% of the students, which means that all they are getting for the reimbursable meal is 30¢,” says Julia Bauscher, the president-elect of the School Nutrition Association and school-nutrition director at Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky. “If they had previously not offered a lot of whole grains or fruits and vegetables, or their students didn’t choose them, there was a significant increase in cost of providing the meals.”

Take the Voorheesville Central School District near Albany, N.Y., which the Associated Press featured in its story about schools struggling with the new lunch-program requirements. Superintendent Teresa Snyder says the district lost $30,000 in revenue during the first quarter of the year because of the program, since students either brought lunch from home or went without, instead of purchasing the healthier options offered in the cafeteria.

But that district is very small, and less than 6% of its students qualify for reduced or free lunch. The school still offers healthy food, and to find a way to maintain the school-lunch program, administrators worked with students to develop a nutritious and more cost-effective menu that would appeal to kids. “For us, this is not a political statement, but an economic one. We believe in the intent of the law, it simply does not apply to a district like ours,” says Snyder. “I do believe our issues revolve around our small population of free and reduced lunch — the reimbursements are so low they do not balance the cost of providing the meals according to the guidelines.”

(MORE: Stricter School-Lunch Standards Lead to Lighter Kids)

Smaller schools may also face an additional hurdle, since most of the people responsible for achieving this balance are volunteers who aren’t trained in nutrition — or food distribution. “In Kansas we have a lot of private schools and oftentimes the food-service director may be a parent, and they may not have had a lot of background in food service, so they need additional help and training. Our public schools have people who have more experience,” says Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness for the Kansas State Department of Education.

Of course, the entire program is predicated on the fact that children will welcome — and eat — the healthier options. As TIME has reported, schools with the greatest success in making their cafeterias healthier started early and introduced changes gradually. The Jefferson County Public Schools district in Louisville, Ky., for example, made its lunchrooms offer 50% whole grains for an entire year before the rules were even enacted, for example.

“The bigger the difference between what [the students] were accustomed to seeing on their serving line in 2011 to 2012 vs. what they saw in 2012 to 2013, the more difficult it was for the school food-service director to address the needs and concerns of the students,” says Bauscher.

USDA undersecretary Kevin Concannon says the schools that have been the most successful have also considered food presentation. For instance, dyeing applesauce bright green seems to draw students to grab it in the lunch line — possibly because they think it’s sweeter and more decadent than it actually is. “It’s a matter of really training the palate. Kids are the same as adults, we get used to eating certain ways and all of a sudden there’s an abrupt change,” he says.

(MORE: More Food for Hungry Students: USDA Tweaks School Meals)

The most difficult to please, not surprisingly, are teens in high school. Because they are probably more set in their eating habits, and because high school athletes, for example, need to eat more calories, these schools have experienced the most backlash against the new lunch options, which many students felt were too skimpy. (Wallace County High School students in Sharon Springs, Kans., even made a video that went viral last year in which they sang about their hunger pangs.)

In response to these complaints, the USDA decided to waive some of the original restrictions, by removing limits on the amount of protein and whole grains per meal. Those amendments to the rules will remain in effect this school year. Johnson says after the video, there was a 5% drop in participation among Kansas schools, but that had shrunk to only 3% by the end of the school year.

It may take several school years for the new lunch standards to be accepted, and several more before their effects are seen in children’s eating habits. What we consume, not to mention the process of sourcing, preparing and distributing food, can’t be changed overnight, much less over a semester or two. “Eating healthier is a good thing, but it is more expensive. And the truth is most students don’t want to eat healthier, so there has been and will be a transition period because what is being served at school in many cases doesn’t look like what they eat at home,” says Michael Smith, the superintendent at Tuscola Community Unit School District No. 301 in Tuscola, Ill. “I’m a proponent of the new standards health-wise, but it is another example of how all of these issues are dumped on schools. I wish they would also be addressed in other places where students eat, like fast-food [restaurants] and gas stations.”

Still, the goal of the new standards is to encourage healthy eating early on, before unhealthy habits set in. If children in elementary schools are seeing more grains and fresh produce in their cafeterias, then they may be more likely to try them and continue eating them as adolescents and adults. School, after all, is a place for learning, and that includes the cafeteria.

*This piece was updated with the latest numbers on school lunch participation.

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