WASHINGTON — 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 USDA says the vast majority of schools are serving healthier food, with some success.
According to USDA data released Monday, around a half-percent of schools have dropped out since last year. Ninety of those 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.
“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,” said Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA deputy undersecretary in charge of the school meals. She said it is clear that the majority of schools think the new standards are working.
In an effort to stem high childhood obesity levels, the new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, and they phase in more whole grains in federally subsidized meals served in schools’ main lunch line. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal and comply with a variety of other specific nutrition requirements. The rules aim to introduce more nutrients to growing kids and also to make old favorites healthier — pizza with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust, for example, or baked instead of fried potatoes.