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Setting the Record Straight about that GAO School Meal Report


You might have seen recent news coverage of a Government Accountability Office report that studied the implementation of school meal nutritional guidelines. Unfortunately, much of the coverage about the report was a bit misleading. We chatted with Tracy Fox, a Leader and founder of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants, LLC, to find out what the GAO actually recommended in the report.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report titled “School Lunch: Implementing Nutrition Changes Was Challenging and Clarification of Oversight Requirements is Needed.” That doesn’t sound too good — and actually contradicts what we’ve been hearing over the past year or so, which is that implementation was going pretty well. What’s actually going on here?

Well, the title as well as some of the press statements about the report did sound more alarming but the details of the report tell a different story. A bit of background, the Government Accountability Office, as part of their ongoing study of implementation of a number of the provisions that were included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, visited eight school districts during the 2012-2013 school year, the first year that updated school meal standards were put in place. What they found was actually more positive than what was in the headlines. While schools faced a number of challenges implementing the standards — to be expected when updating menus — states and districts expected that many of the areas will become less challenging over time. 

So what specifically did the GAO recommend? Does the agency think anything should be scaled back?

GAO’s two main recommendations to USDA were modest — one addressed the need for USDA to clarify the need for states to document noncompliance issues when they conduct reviews in districts, and to assess states’ needs related to oversight and financial management. GAO did NOT recommend scaling back any of the school meal standards. 

One of the things that drew a lot of media attention from the report was a decline in school lunch participation. What do you think is behind that? Do you think declines will continue, or will participation begin to go up?

Although the study found that participation declined a bit more in the 2012-13 school year, GAO reported that it likely will improve over time as students and school food service adjust to the new meal standards. In addition, the number of students who buy full-price lunches each month has been declining since school year 2007-2008 — well before the updated standards were put in place — while the number of students participating in the program each month who receive free meals has steadily increased over the years. These trends are consistent with the economic downturn during the study period.  

How many schools are meeting the lunch standards? What sort of support do schools need to meet the new standards and continue to do so?

USDA’s recent analysis shows that more than 86 percent of states have been certified to receive the increase in reimbursement rate, and therefore are meeting the standards.  And some states like North Carolina and Colorado are 100 percent certified.  USDA has and will continue to provide training and technical assistance and many states have been instrumental in helping states meet the standards.

What lessons can both schools and the USDA take from the implementation of school meal standards as they now look to implement similar standards for school snacks and drinks?

I think what the implementation of school meals has shown is that schools that have been gearing up over the years and making improvements before the standards were in place, have found the transition easier. But like any change, it will take time for both school food services and students to adjust. We also know that schools are a critical place to ensure that all options available for students are healthy ones so schools must stay on track to continue school meal improvements and start putting in place the changes to make sure snacks are meeting the updated standards before the 2014-2015 school year. 

Looking ahead, the USDA is now accepting comments on a proposal to restrict food and beverage marketing in schools. How has the reaction been so far to that proposal? Do you think it will move forward?

USDA released proposed guidelines to ensure school districts have strong local wellness policies in place. In addition to schools needing to have policies in place for physical activity and nutrition education, schools will also only be able to market healthy foods and beverages. This makes perfect sense and is in alignment with the updated meal and snack standards. The reaction to this proposal for the most part has been positive; for example, beverage companies have already come out in support of the proposal. USDA is currently accepting comments which will provide us an opportunity to weigh in and see how others are reacting.  Wellness policies serve an important purpose in bringing the school and interested community members — like parents — together to work collaboratively in improving the school environment. That’s a win-win for students!