There's a lot of evidence that the meals school cafeterias are serving have gotten healthier since new federal nutrition standards were rolled out.
For instance, a new analysis from the CDC finds that, since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, there's been a significant increase in the number of schools serving two or more vegetables and whole grain-rich foods each day. And another study shows kids are tossing less food away.
But some school districts say there's an unintended consequence of the reform: fewer students are buying lunch.
The dip in participation in the National School Lunch Program has been "driven primarily by a decline of 1.6 million students eating school lunch who pay full price for meals," a GAO report concluded last year.
At the same time, there's been an increase in the number of "students eating school lunch who receive free meals," the GAO found.
In other words, healthier school lunches are reaching more needy kids — but more kids who could afford to pay full price seem to be brown-bagging it instead.
Now, as this published study shows, the lunches parents pack aren't always as healthy as what's served at school. But packed lunches may be more appealing to some kids compared with what's being served at school.
As school cafeterias have cut back on salt, limited their selections of a la carte snacks, and mandated more fruits and vegetables, some school food administrators say it's tougher to keep paying students in the lunch line.
"We've had a financial loss each of the last three years in the St. Paul school district" in Minnesota, says Jean Ronnei, who oversees nutrition services for the district and is currently serving as the president of the national School Nutrition Association.
"When we lose participation and the food costs and labor costs rise, at some point, the financial picture is gloomy," says Ronnei. And in some cases, when schools lose money in their cafeteria programs, "they have to dip into general funds, [which] is what supports classrooms," Ronnei adds.
Ronnei says her district is not alone. A recent survey by the School Nutrition Association found that 58 percent of the responding school districts reported a decline in participation in their lunch programs. And more than 90 percent of the respondents say "decreased student acceptance of meals" is a factor in the dip.
In an effort to boost participation and attract more kids back to the cafeteria line, the School Nutrition Association is lobbying Congress to relax some of the nutrition standards. And some lawmakers are supportive.
"We'd love to see changes with sodium and whole grain [rules]," says Ronnei.
Congress is set to begin the process of reauthorizing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 later this month. The SNA is also asking lawmakers to drop the mandate that requires students to take a fruit or vegetable as part of a meal.
"The requirement that students must take 1/2 cup [of fruit or vegetable] with every single breakfast and lunch has increased waste and costs, leaving schools with less funding to invest in more expensive, appealing choices," the SNA position paper states.
And another issue: Some schools say they're losing revenue due to changes in the rules that limit sales of snacks and a la carte items.
"There are a number of items that we can no longer sell a la carte," Siri Perlman of the San Dieguito Union High School District in Encinitas, Calif., tells The Salt.
"For instance, the hummus pack [we used to offer] doesn't qualify as an a la carte item, because the percentage of fat is too high," Perlman says. And she says some of her students' favorite items are no longer compliant with the regulations.
"We also had a really, popular panini option that the kids liked," Perlman says. It was served on sourdough bread and toasted fresh for them. But now it's served on a smaller whole-grain bread to meet the standards.
"They don't really like [it] and they don't perceive it as having the same value because it's smaller," Perlman says. As a result? Some kids don't buy.
She says since the standards took effect, "we've experienced a 10 percent drop in revenue, so we've been operating at a loss."
And some high school cafeterias do have outside competition, she says: "In the demographic that we have, the students have money and [some] also have cars to get off campus."
She says she sees kids come back from lunch with Starbucks cups and snacks from 7-Eleven and other fast-food joints. Some "students walk down the street to ice cream shops or a neighboring In-N-Out Burger," Perlman says.
An estimated 25 percent of high schools allow students to leave campus at lunchtime. On the other side of the country from Perlman, for example, at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., students often walk to a nearby Chipotle and pizza shop. (This trend started before the nutrition rules went into effect.)
Despite the drop in participation, supporters of the school nutrition standards say it would be a mistake to relax the rules.
"It would be easy to get higher participation by serving up junkier foods – but that would undercut the goal of this nutrition program," says Margo Wootan of the CSPI.
The Obama administration has fought back against the idea that the stricter standards are the cause of the dip in participation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — who oversees the school lunch and breakfast programs — says the decline started before the new rules took effect.
"This is not the time to take a step back, this is a time to double down," Vilsack told us.
Vilsack says the USDA has provided millions of dollars in resources to help states and schools implement the school nutrition standards. And this week, he announced $8 million in grants to help school nutrition professionals better prepare healthy meals.
"I think there are solutions to this" drop in participation, says American Academy of Pediatrics President Sandra Hassink. She points to a mentoring program that matches school food administrators who are struggling with administrators who have been successful in adapting to the new standards.
"So the first line [for school districts looking for help] is to access this technical support," Hassink says.
Though participation rates are down by 3 or 4 percent in the school lunch program, there are still millions of children eating the healthy meals served at school.
Vilsack says that given the evidence from experts that links too much salt to high blood pressure, and too many calories to obesity, the stricter standards need to stay in place.
"This is what we need to do for the benefit of our children," Vilsack says.