But not everyone is thrilled with the new menus. The School Nutrition Association is lobbying for changes, claiming the standards have reduced participation in the school-lunch program, are costing districts financially, and have led to more food being thrown away because students don’t like it. The SNA, which represents school-meal providers, points to a Government Accountability Office report that outlines the many challenges facing school cafeterias as a result of the new rules.The group also disputes key arguments made by the regulations’ supporters. (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded to some of the most common criticisms of the school-nutrition standards at a recent National Press Club event.)
In addition to factors like the quality and variety of the food offered and the eating habits students bring with them to campus from home, there’s another element Vilsack says needs closer attention: time.
At many campuses, students have less than 20 minutes to eat, giving a new meaning to “fast food.” Crowded high schools also use so-called “nutrition breaks” instead of lunch hours so they can start funneling kids through the cafeteria in the mid-morning hours. And in the younger grades the lunchtime is often tacked on to recess, which means kids have to choose between eating and going outside to play.
“I don’t think we’re asking schools to do too much,” Vilsack told me in a telephone interview Monday. Rather, the problem is “we’re asking them to do it all in too brief a period a time … not just to feed students, but to educate them.”
To be sure, Farm-to-School initiatives require a significant commitment of time and resources from participating districts. The individual responses from local school districts detail how much they’ve spent on locally sourced food, the number of campuses involved in the movement, and more.
Of the census respondents, 75 percent of districts said they saw at least one of the following benefits at their campuses with Farm to School programs: “less plate waste; improved acceptance of the healthier school meals; increased participation in school meals programs; lower school meal program costs; and increased support from parents and community members for the healthier school meals.”
The new census data follows a flurry of studies on school nutrition in recent months, in some instances yielding contradictory results about the impact of the new federal regulations.
A Vermont study, for example, used photographs of students’ trays before and after meals to gauge which specific food items weren’t being eaten. (Spoiler alert: The green beans were particularly unpopular.) The researcher concluded “Children consumed fewer [fruits and vegetables] and wasted more … during the school year immediately following implementation of the USDA rule that required them to take one fruit or vegetable at lunch.”