Few schools drop out of subsidized lunch program with healthier meals
WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department says 524 schools — out of about 100,000 — have dropped out of the federally subsidized national school lunch program since the government introduced new standards for healthier foods last year.
The standards have been met with grumbling from school nutrition officials who say they are difficult and expensive to follow, conservatives who say the government shouldn't be dictating what kids eat and — unsurprisingly — from some children who say the less-greasy food doesn't taste as good. But the USDA says the vast majority of schools are serving healthier food, with some success.
Data the department is planning to release on Monday show that 80 percent of schools say they have met the requirements, which went into place at the beginning of the 2012 school year. About a half-percent have dropped out of the program.
In an effort to stem high childhood obesity levels, the guidelines set limits on calories and salt, and phase in more whole grains in federally subsidized meals served in schools' main lunch line. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal and comply with a variety of other specific nutrition requirements. The rules aim to introduce more nutrients to growing kids and make old favorites healthier — pizza with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust, for example, or baked instead of fried potatoes.
If schools do not follow the rules, or if they drop out, they are not eligible for the federal dollars that reimburse them for free and low-cost meals served to low-income students. That means wealthier schools with fewer needy students are more likely to be able to operate outside of the program.
According to the USDA data, gathered from the states that administer the programs, 90 of the 524 schools that dropped out of the program said specifically that they did so because of the new meal-plan requirements. Most of the rest did not give a reason.
Some school nutrition officials have said buying the healthier foods put a strain on their budgets.