New lunch regulations are too hard to swallow for many schools

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Fried foods and sweets aren’t the only casualties of the government’s revamped school lunch menu.

More than 500 schools have dropped out of the federal school lunch program since new guidelines went into effect 12 months ago, a sign of still-smoldering discontent with the ambitious rewrite of what the nation’s schoolchildren find on their lunch trays.

Proponents of the program — including first lady Michelle Obama, who continues to lead a high-profile anti-obesity campaign — say the 524 schools that have withdrawn amount to a drop in the bucket; about 100,000 schools nationwide participate in the subsidized-lunch program.

But some analysts wonder whether the backlash will continue. Districts, even those that want to comply with the stringent standards and serve healthier eats to children, are running into problems.

“For the people who have to plan menus, it’s been complicated,” said Barry Sackin, owner of B. Sackin and Associates, a California-based consulting firm specializing in the school food-service industry. “Getting whole-grain bread items, finding them at a good price range has been challenging. Because the menus are so restrictive in terms of their structure, it decreases flexibility and there are still reports of significant waste, particularly with fruits and vegetables.”

The Department of Agriculture’s updated lunch plan sets new limits on calories and salt and calls for more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. At least one fruit or vegetable, for example, must be served with every meal.

Failure to meet those guidelines would disqualify schools from receiving federal money that reimburses them for free or low-cost meals served to students from low-income families.

But almost immediately after they went into effect, the rules came under fire.

They attracted national attention last school year when students complained that they either weren’t getting enough to eat or that they were being subjected to substandard food.

School cafeteria leaders complained that the new benchmarks would increase costs and greatly limit lunch options.

Despite the prescriptive standards and the difficulties meeting them, about 80 percent of schools say they have complied.

Ninety-four percent of school districts expect to meet the requirements by the end of this school year, according to a report from The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.

But compliance has come at a cost.

More than 90 percent of schools said they have faced “one or more challenges” in achieving full implementation of the program. About 90 percent reported that they had to make at least one change in operations to meet the requirements.

Such changes include buying new kitchen equipment or resorting to more “ready-to-eat” foods from vendors.

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