School Lunch Truce?

Earlier this month here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we discussed an effort[1] led by some Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to scale back the school-lunch nutrition standards that Congress mandated as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Those standards[2] — which cover all food sold in schools during regular hours and impose limits on fat, sodium, and sugar content — have come under fire from food industry–backed groups and many school cafeteria workers, who blame them for a drop in school-lunch sales since they went into effect in 2012. Because of this drop in sales, some school districts are losing money within their lunch programs.

According to a new study, however, a little bit of time and patience may be all that is needed to see kids enjoying their healthier lunches. Set to be published in the journal Childhood Obesity, the study is based on a survey of over 500 elementary-school administrators about their school’s experience adjusting to the new standards over the 2012–2013 school year. The schools were chosen to approximate a nationally representative sample of all schools. According to an article on the study[3] in The Wall Street Journal, 70% of administrators agreed that by the end of the school year, students generally liked their new lunches. It wasn’t always this way: 56% of administrators said that students complained at first about the changes made to their meals and menus. However, 64% of administrators said that few students were complaining by the end of the school year. The 2012–2013 school year saw a 3.7% drop in school lunch sales, compared with the 2010–2011 school year, but it’s not clear how much of this drop was due to the new standards being implemented.

Not all schools behaved similarly in response to the healthier meals introduced in 2012. Schools in which two-thirds or more of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches saw more participation in the school lunch program than other schools, and also had fewer reports of thrown-out food in the wake of the new nutrition standards. Rural schools were less likely to see school-lunch participation, and more likely to waste food, than their urban and suburban counterparts.

It’s possible, of course, that school-lunch participation will continue to rise as memories of the switch to the current nutrition standards fade. As a recent article[4] in Science World Report mentions, according to some studies, children are less likely to eat healthy foods when they know about the foods’ health benefits. Students may enjoy their lunches more if they aren’t aware of the rules under which the lunches were prepared.

What do you think — does the survey of elementary-school administrators bode well, or poorly, for the future of the school lunch program under its current rules? Should Congress eliminate or change nutrition standards if lunch sales in schools continue to drop, or don’t rise back to their previous level? Should school districts with low school-lunch program participation be exempt from the 2012 nutrition requirements? Is healthy eating good for its own sake, or should the federal government study whether the new rules are successful at limiting conditions such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes[5]? Leave a comment below!

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