WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department says 524 schools — out of about 100,000 — have dropped out of the federally subsidized national school lunch program since the government introduced new standards for healthier foods last year.
The new standards have met with grumbling from school nutrition officials who say they are difficult and expensive to follow, conservatives who say the government shouldn’t be dictating what kids eat and — unsurprisingly — from some children who say the less-greasy food doesn’t taste as good.
But the USDA says the vast majority of schools are serving healthier food, with some success.
According to USDA data released Monday, about a half-percent of schools have dropped out since last year. Ninety of the 524 schools that have dropped out said specifically that they did so because of the new meal-plan requirements. Most of the rest did not give a reason.
Eighty percent of schools say they have already met the requirements, which went into place at the beginning of the 2012 school year.
No Nebraska public schools have opted out of the federal school lunch program, said Beverly Benes, the Nebraska Department of Education’s nutrition services director. A couple of private schools have dropped out, he said, but it is not clear why.
Staci Hupp of the Iowa Department of Education said officials aren’t aware of any Iowa schools dropping out.
Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA deputy undersecretary in charge of the school meals, said, “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.”
She said it is clear that the majority of schools think the new standards are working.
Some school nutrition officials have said buying the healthier foods put a strain on their budgets. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, also released Monday, said that 91 percent of school food officials the group surveyed said they face challenges in putting the standards in place, including problems with food costs and availability.
The school lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches served at reduced or no cost to low-income children.
Schoolchildren can still buy additional foods in other parts of the lunchroom and the school. Separate USDA rules to make those foods healthier could go into effect as soon as next year.
World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson contributed to this report.