Most Schools Are Serving Healthier Meals, Despite Challenges

Ninety five percent of the nation's school districts have implemented the rules put forth in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. A new study digs in to how it's going.

School Food

It has been four years since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act‘s (HHFKA) improved school nutritional standards went into effect, and we’ve been hearing conflicting reports about how districts are adapting to them ever since. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 95 percent of districts are now meeting the standards, which sounds like a resounding success, but to bolster its own campaign to roll back reforms, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has tended to emphasize all the obstacles districts reportedly face, from lost revenue to increased food waste.

So what’s the true story?

A comprehensive report released last week by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project (KSHFP) goes a long way toward answering that question. The KSHFP surveyed 489 school nutrition directors from across the country about their implementation of the new standards as of the 2014-15 school year, then shared their responses with a panel of 11 expert food service directors who offered their own insights and recommendations. Here are the key findings:

Cost and Availability of Suitable Foods Remain a Challenge

The KSHFP says “districts have emerged from the most challenging phase of the transition to healthier meals,” but when you drill down into the details of the study, the picture is a little less rosy: About 60 percent of the directors surveyed still report “some” or “a great deal” of difficulties implementing the new standards at lunch, and about 40 percent felt the same way at breakfast. The most commonly cited issues were the availability and cost of compliant foods that are acceptable to students.

But it’s worth noting that districts that improved their meals in anticipation of the new rules experienced somewhat fewer challenges than those that waited until after the rules went into effect; newer data might therefore show even fewer districts still experiencing difficulties.

Financial Concerns

More than half of the directors surveyed said their revenue stayed the same or increased following the implementation of the HHFKA standards, while just under half had seen declines. But overall, 87 percent of the directors reported having financial concerns, often relating to the costs of labor and equipment. Interestingly, the directors only rarely reported that their financial concerns stemmed from factors such as food costs, decreased revenue from competitive food sales, drops in student participation, or an adverse effect of meal price increases.

Increased Plate Waste for Fruits and Vegetables

Under the HHFKA rules, children now have to take a half-cup serving of a fruit or vegetable at lunch, rather than being able to pass those foods by. The SNA has maintained that this change increases plate waste, while other studies, such as this one from the Harvard School of Public Health, found no such increase. But to the extent one can rely on the impressions of school food directors (as opposed to actual measurement), the KSHFP survey bolsters the SNA’s position: More than half of the directors surveyed reported increased plate waste for fruits, and 75 percent said that the amount of vegetable waste had increased.

However, districts using strategies like cutting up fresh produce, offering a wider array of produce and serving it in salad bars felt those techniques were particularly effective in increasing student acceptance of fruits and vegetables. It’s also important to note that the survey took place in the 2014-15 school year, which means children have since had an additional year and half to become accustomed to the new rule; arguably, the more fruits and vegetables become the norm, the less likely kids are to spurn them.

Salad Bars and Scratch-Cooking Increase Participation

Notably, directors who prepared more foods from scratch and increased their use of salad bars were more likely to report that student participation either increased or remain unchanged, while declines in participation were seen most often by directors who purchased more pre-made foods or had fewer menu options. These findings should bolster efforts by parents around the country who would like to get salad bars into their kids’ schools, but are told by their district that they’re too expensive or won’t be popular with kids.

Illegal Junk Food Sales Continue

Only two-thirds of the directors said that all the foods and beverages sold “a la carte” in their meal programs met the Smart Snacks standards for competitive food, and only two in ten directors reported that products sold by other departments and groups on campus (e.g., through student fundraisers) were Smart Snacks compliant. Those figures are shockingly low, but it’s again important to note that the survey was taken in 2014-15—the first school year in which the Smart Snacks standards were in effect. One would hope that overall compliance is now significantly improved. (Then again, see this 2016 post regarding thriving junk food sales in my own district, Houston ISD: “Dispatch From Houston: Junk Food Sales Are Alive and Well.”)

Not Enough Time for Kids to Eat

Many districts remain challenged by lunch periods that give children too little time to eat, and nearly half have used some strategies to expedite service, such as offering “grab and go” options, increasing the number of cashiers and adding more serving lines.

The report contains pages of advice from the expert panel on how districts can overcome challenges, making it a valuable resource for districts that are still struggling. But as I read through all that advice, I could only think of a post I wrote back in 2014 in which I mused that “there are few jobs on this planet harder than managing a district’s school food program.” It’s hard to read the KSHFP report without feeling tremendous empathy for school food directors, who have to juggle an array of competing concerns—financial constraints, regulatory compliance, a lack of equipment, student acceptance, parent input, too-short lunch periods—all on a budget that can be generously described as “meager.”

It’s also impossible to read the report without wondering if all the work districts have so far put into adapting to the new standards will go up in smoke when/if the Trump administration and the new Republican-controlled Congress decide to roll those standards back.

In a wide-ranging interview last week with Politico‘s senior food policy reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich, outgoing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he remains confident that most of the Obama nutritional reforms will be preserved: “”I don’t think that any administration, coming in, following this administration, would be able to roll back everything that’s been done in the nutrition space. I think there is a consensus—and I believe it’s a bipartisan consensus—that we have had, and continue to have, a challenge with obesity. We have, and continue to have, concerns about the impact that’s going to have on our military, on our children’s futures, on medical expenses.”

We’ll see.

 

This post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.

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