Fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grain foods have been required in schools since new nutrition standards went into effect in 2012. But despite efforts to promote these new choices — including a push from the first lady — the number of students eating federally-funded school lunches has dropped.
"The data was there that the participation was going down," said Brian Wright, food service director at the Baldwinsville School District in Baldwinsville, in western New York state. As a result, Wright's district withdrew one of its schools from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Daily participation in school lunches fell about 3 percent from 31.9 million students a day during the 2011-2012 school year to 30.9 million during the 2012-2013 school year, according to a General Accountability Office audit. The biggest drop was recorded among students who pay for their own lunch, not those who get it it free of charge or pay a reduced price.
"I don’t think anyone is against the goal of this policy," Dr. David Hamilton, superintendent of the Baldwinsville School District, told NBC. "We all want the students to be eating the healthiest things we can put in front of them, but it's about when that policy goal becomes a reality in the kitchen."
What the Standards Say
A 2010 law, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for food served in schools. The standards have calorie limitations and are designed to improve the health of millions of children who eat lunch at school every day. The USDA provides reimbursements per meal to help schools pay for fresher ingredients. But many schools say students dislike the new offerings, like unsalted potatoes or whole wheat pasta, and simply throw food away or decide not to eat at all.
Why Schools Are Opting Out
At the Baldwinsville School District, the loss of revenue,especially in the past year and a half, prompted officials to withdraw one of its schools, Baker High School, from the program. The unanimous decision by the school board was an experimental effort to boost the cafeteria's popularity.
Hamilton said that under the new USDA guidelines the cafeteria couldn't serve student favorites like grilled cheese and tomato soup.
"There are times when a student would take one of those beautiful fresh apples or a banana to the cash register, and it would go right in the trash can," Wright said.
Students seemed excited about new offerings at the cafetria after the school withdrew from NSLP, Wright said.
"We’re able to give the kids the freedom to choose," he said. "We still offer a whole grain roll, but we also offer a white roll as well, whether it be a hamburger roll or a roll for sandwiches." He added that there is still a whole grain option for pizza as well.
What Supporters of the Program Say
According to the USDA, about 150 school districts out of an estimated 100,000 have opted out of the program because of the new guidelines.
Supporters of the new healthy lunch fare said schools are giving up too easily.
“When students complain of rigorous math or science requirements, you don’t see schools opting out of math and science,” said Colin Schwartz, the director of legislation affairs at the Physicians Commitee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit organization that advocates for healthy practices in hospitals, homes and schools.
Schwartz also noted that it's the wealthier schools that are opting out of the program. Less wealthy schools need to take advantage of reimbursements that supplement the healthy food requirement.
The legislation has been criticized by House Republicans who say schools have a hard time complying with the guidelines and want schools to be able to opt out of nutrition rules if they are losing money from the healthier meals.
Supporters of the new standards, including Michelle Obama, who made the new standards the centerpiece of her anti-obesity "Let's Move!" campaign, say Republicans are trying to lower the quality of food kids get in school.
"Today, 90 percent of schools report that they are meeting these new standards," Michelle Obama wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "As a result, kids are now getting more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods they need to be healthy."
Schwartz is confident in the new lunch standards but says there's more work to be done.
"We still have a long way to go," he said. "This is not the end game for us,” he said.