New lunch regulations are too hard to swallow for many schools

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first lady Michelle Obama, who continues to lead a high-profile anti-obesity campaign — say the 524 schools that have withdrawn amount to a drop in the bucket; about 100,000 schools nationwide participate in the subsidized-lunch program.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

More than half of the schools said they plan more “scratch” cooking, which may require more equipment, more space and potentially more expensive ingredients, according to the report.

“School meal program budgets are tight across the board. Equipment purchases are a real challenge because they’re big-ticket items. When the budget is tight and schools are encountering higher food costs, it can make those purchases more difficult,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents more than 55,000 members providing school meals.

Backers of the program concede that there have been bumps in the road but say signs have been encouraging.

Of the 524 schools that have withdrawn from the federal lunch program, 90 said they did so specifically because of the new rules. Most of the rest did not give a reason.

The Agriculture Department also expects that some districts will have a tougher time than others.

“It’s important to remember that some schools weren’t as close to meeting the new standards and they may need a little more time for their students to fully embrace the new meals,” said Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Agriculture Department. “That’s why it’s such a priority for us to continue to provide flexibility and help to schools as they work toward full implementation.”

Indeed, the federal government — sometimes with the prodding of Congress — has made several adjustments to its rules.

At the beginning of last year, for example, the Agriculture Department relaxed daily and weekly limits on meats and grains that some school officials said were too hard to follow.

In 2011, after the first draft of the standards was released, Congress prohibited the department from limiting potatoes and french fries.

Some lawmakers also fought to preserve cafeterias’ ability to serve frozen pizzas. The tomato paste on a frozen pizza now counts as a vegetable.

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