The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report criticizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its “limited” response to school districts that had trouble implementing the new school lunch nutrition standards for the 2012-2013 school year. According to GAO, which gathered feedback from eight districts, schools reported that restrictions on the amount of meats and grains served each week during lunch required them to eliminate popular menu items and made it difficult “to meet minimum calorie requirements for lunches without adding items, such as gelatin, that generally do not improve the nutritional quality of lunches.” In addition, some school food authorities (SFAs) observed that calorie range requirements posed a particular challenge in schools with both middle and high school students “[b]ecause the required lunch calorie ranges for these two grade groups do not overlap.”

To address these issues, GAO has recommended that USDA “remove the meat and grain maximum requirements and allow flexibility to help districts comply with the lack of overlap in the calorie ranges for grades 6-8 and 9-12 lunches.” The report also noted concerns about student resistance to whole grain, vegetable and fruit requirements; increased cost and food waste; the inability of some lunches to meet the calorie needs of especially active students; and the new competitive food standards taking effect in 2014.

“Acknowledging that the meat and grain maximums created challenges for SFAs, USDA lifted them through school year 2013-2014 and indicated that the maximums may not be needed to accomplish the nutrition goals of the new requirements,” concludes the GAO report. “However, although USDA has acknowledged the need for a permanent decision on the maximums, they have yet to provide one, hindering the ability of school districts to plan menus, food purchases, budgets, staff training, and student education because they do not know whether the meat and grain restrictions will be reinstated in the future or not.”