Back to School Lunches

Aug 29, 2014 Issues: Education

Students across Nebraska returned to classes in recent weeks.  However because of new, overbearing government regulations fewer students are participating in school lunch.   A new national survey by the School Nutrition Association found a five percent decline in daily participation, even as the number of students receiving free and reduced meals increased.

The challenges facing school lunch programs are at least in part due to implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.  While I voted against this legislation, the law in theory intended to improve the quality and nutrition of meals served in American schools.  In practice, this meant one-size-fits-all federal regulations with unintended consequences.  In addition to reduced participation, costs have risen, local control and flexibility has decreased, and meals may not meet the nutritional needs of all students.

Travelling Nebraska’s Third District, I often meet with students, teachers, and staff.  Since the new school lunch requirements were implemented many students tell me meals are not adequate, and they are left hungry.  Administrators tell me the new requirements are straining already stretched school budgets.  And parents are faced with difficult choices.

This feedback is consistent with a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan federal agency in March.  The GAO report confirmed a decrease in student participation, an increase in the amount of food thrown away by students, and the challenges by school districts to plan menus and obtain food which meet the new requirements.

Most alarmingly, the GAO reported more than half of school districts surveyed believed students were going hungry because of the new calorie restrictions required by the new rules.  It is worth remembering for many students school meals are their primary source of nutrition.  Reductions in the size of meals could affect the health and wellness of these and other students.

Decisions of how to spend limited resources are best left to local officials and school boards.  They are better equipped and more accountable to meet the needs of their students and communities.  I have urged Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to revisit the new school lunch rules to give more flexibility in implementing the guidelines and to review their costs and benefits.

We can all agree children need adequate and nutritious meals.  As is too often the case, these worthy goals cannot be achieved by federal mandates.  For all of the challenges and high costs of the new regulations it is now becoming clear too many children are not being well served by the new school lunches.  As the new school year continues, hungry students and challenged school staff would welcome a change to the menu.