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Contact: Diane Pratt-Heavner
School Nutrition Association Releases “State of School Nutrition 2014”
National survey finds cafeterias promote healthier choices, but still struggle with student lunch participation.
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD – A new national survey of school meal program operators finds that schools are expanding creative menu options, nutrition education and other initiatives to promote healthy school meals, yet many districts still struggle with decreased student lunch participation at all grade levels, and other challenges related to new nutrition standards for school meals. The findings are part of School Nutrition Association (SNA)’s “School Nutrition Operations Report: The State of School Nutrition 2014,” based on survey responses from 1,102 school nutrition directors working in school districts nationwide.
The survey revealed that since SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2011 survey, school meal programs have increased healthy options for students and expanded menu choices to appeal to diverse student tastes:
- 63% of districts have salad or produce bars, while 69% offer pre-packaged salads.
- 52% serve locally sourced fruits and vegetables, up from 48% in 2011.
- Cafeterias are also offering more ethnic food options:
- Mexican and Asian dishes continue to be most prevalent, served in 98% and 88% of districts respectively.
- Middle Eastern options have experienced the greatest growth, now offered in 40% of districts, up from 28% in 2011.
School meal programs are utilizing a variety of methods to promote these healthier options to students. The survey found a majority of school districts currently engage in student taste testing of new menu items (64%) and nutrition education in the classroom (55%), and prevalence of other outreach initiatives has increased since the 2011 survey:
- 37.5% of respondents report that Farm to School initiatives are currently underway in their districts, up from 32% in 2011.
- 35% of districts currently have school gardens, up from 22% in 2011.
- 24% of districts currently participate in the HealthierUS School Challenge, up from 21% in 2011.
Despite school menu enhancements and creative marketing efforts, schools meal programs nationwide are struggling with a decline in student lunch participation. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data shows that under the new standards, lunch participation is down in 49 states, with more than one million fewer students choosing school lunch each day.
The State of School Nutrition 2014 shows that this decline in lunch participation has occurred at the elementary, middle and high school levels, with an overall decline in median Average Daily Participation from 68% in the 2011 survey to 64% in 2014.
This participation drop has occurred despite an increase in the average percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals in a district/program, from 47% in 2011 to 48% in 2014. The survey shows a drop in the percentage of meals served to students in the paid meal category in a district/program from an average of 42% in 2011 to 36% in 2014. This mirrors USDA data that indicates decreases in paid meal participation have outpaced overall participation declines.
Not surprisingly, “Program participation” was most commonly cited as one of three most pressing issues faced by districts, selected by 44% of respondents. “Implementation of new meal patterns,” “Cost of food” and “Implementation of competitive food regulations” were the next most commonly cited issues, each selected by over 40% of respondents.
“School meal programs are not only offering healthier fare, they are also finding creative ways to encourage students to try all the fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutritious choices in the cafeteria,” said SNA President Julia Bauscher, SNS. “Unfortunately, despite efforts to promote healthier meals, fewer students are choosing school lunch under the new nutrition standards, and that’s a huge concern for school nutrition professionals, already struggling to manage the high cost of meeting complex regulations. To ensure more students choose healthy school lunches and to keep school meal programs financially stable, USDA should provide schools with commonsense flexibility under the regulations.”
Among other key findings in the report, full-paid meal prices have increased since 2011 in all grade levels, with the average price for a full-paid lunch reaching $2.18 for elementary schools, $2.37 for middle schools and $2.42 in high school. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s Paid Meal Equity mandate is a primary driving force behind meal price increases, with 83% of those who increased full paid lunch prices in 2013-14 attributing the increase to Paid Meal Equity requirements.
As more students struggle with food allergies or intolerances, school meal programs are working to accommodate students’ special dietary needs:
- The availability of gluten-free foods has increased, with 37% of districts offering these options, up from 32% in 2011.
- 35% of districts now offer lactose-free milk, up from 26% in 2011, and soymilk is offered in 25% of districts.
- The number of districts banning certain foods due to food allergies in all or some schools has increased from 33% in 2011 to 36% in 2014.
- Peanuts are the most commonly banned food, cited by 97% of districts with food bans, followed by tree nuts, cited by nearly 40%.
The State of School Nutrition 2014 covers Demographics and Operational Parameters, Pressing Issues, Programs (including Community Eligibility Provision and Competitive Foods), Food and Beverage Trends, Meal Prices and Participation (including Student Meal Debt and Lunch Periods), Procurement, and Technology.
The survey was conducted in spring of 2014. Copies of the full report can be ordered from the School Nutrition Association’s online bookstore at www.schoolnutrition.org/Publications/Bookstore/.
SNA supports most of the new nutrition standards, but is requesting reasonable changes to the rules to help students adjust to changes in the cafeteria, limit waste and help schools manage costs. Click here for details on SNA’s requests of USDA and Congress.
About School Nutrition Association:
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national, non-profit professional organization representing 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country. Founded in 1946, SNA and its members are dedicated to making healthy school meals and nutrition education available to all students. To find out more about today’s school meals, visit www.SchoolNutrition.org/SchoolMeals.