State Burdens of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

School districts across the country are having problems implementing a 2010 law that changed the guidelines for school breakfasts and lunches because of the rise in food prices, among other factors, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 aims to help reduce the level of childhood obesity in the United States and encourage healthier eating habits for young people. The law required school breakfasts and lunches to include more fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Between the 2010-11 and 2012-13 school years, however, overall participation in school lunches declined by 1.2 million students.

The GAO report also found certain aspects of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidance and oversight of school food authorities created issues with state compliance. Evidence also suggests some school food authorities that were granted federal funds did not fully meet validation requirements.

GAO

School lunch participation has seen a decline since 2007; however, the greatest decline—10 percent—came in 2012-13, while the number of students receiving free meals has been increasing. The GAO survey found 48 states said the new meal requirements set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act directly affected student participation in the program. The program requires whole grain alternatives and smaller meat and grain portions. During the 2012-13 school year, one district reported the changes made to school lunches led to a three-week student boycott. School officials also noted the paid lunch equity, which increased the price of paid lunches in districts where federal reimbursement from paid lunches was less than their federal reimbursement on free lunches, also created problems. The change was made to help school districts comply with the newer, more expensive food requirements. The downside to this was that some families with limited incomes who did not qualify for free lunches felt they were being charged more for less food, ultimately leading to these families not participating in school lunches.

Federal reimbursement

Oversight issues also created problems for the program. States oversee the National School Lunch Program to ensure school food authorities are complying with the rules set under the program. If they are not in compliance, the states can issue noncompliance reports and take action to address the problems. Due to the scale of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the new guidelines, states were instead told to work with school districts on the new guidelines. States were not required to document noncompliance issues, partly removing the oversight duties of the states. Also under the law, states can authorize compliance and grant 6 cents of federal funds to a school district for each lunch served to help offset costs of the new guidelines; however, states that did not certify compliance did not lose the federal grant of 6 cents. The USDA believes the noncompliance issues to be a result of school districts learning and adapting to the new guidelines. The USDA Standards for Internal Control, said, without the proper noncompliance, the “program integrity will be at risk.”

Some school food service directors believe the trend of declining participation will hinder the act’s original intent.