Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lunch Ladies Want Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act To Lighten Up


There's lots of evidence that meals kids are being served in schools have gotten healthier. The landmark Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, which was passed five years ago, came with a mandate to put fruits and vegetables on every lunch tray. But the School Nutrition Association says for some school districts, there's been an unintended consequence of the reform. Fewer kids are buying school lunches. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: As students in St. Paul Minnesota head back to school this week, the district's Jean Ronnei says there are still some meals that get kids excited, like this one.

JEAN RONNEI: Fresh roasted chicken, cornbread that's homemade, apple kohlrabi slaw and strawberries.

AUBREY: But Ronnei says her schools may not be able to serve this exact meal much longer. The problem, it has too much salt. The next phase of the federal nutrition standards, which have been implemented in stages over the last few years, are set to get stricter. So she's going to have to change the recipe.

RONNEI: The sodium is too high when you throw in some barbecue sauce on top of the rotisserie chicken.

AUBREY: And that means food will just taste different. She says this exemplifies the kinds of changes school cafeterias have been making to comply with the new rules. It's not just less salt but also less sugar, fewer choices in snacks. And schools have also had to replace things like white sourdough bread and tortillas, two favorites, with whole-grain-rich alternatives. Now, as a result, Ronnei says some students don't like these changes. And they've stopped buying lunch in the cafeteria.

RONNEI: We have had a financial loss each of three years in the St. Paul school district.

AUBREY: Now, not all school districts are struggling. But Ronnei, who is currently serving as president of the School Nutrition Association, says her district is certainly not alone. According to USDA data, about 1 million fewer students bought school lunch last year out of roughly 30 million students in the system. Now, that might not sound like a lot, but Ronnei says it takes its toll.

RONNEI: When we lose participation and food costs and labor costs rise, at some point the financial picture is gloomy.

AUBREY: Because if school districts lose money in their cafeteria programs...

RONNEI: They have to dip into the general fund. And the general fund is what supports classrooms.

AUBREY: To address this, the School Nutrition Association is lobbying lawmakers to relax some of the nutrition rules.

RONNEI: We'd love to see changes with the sodium and whole grains in order to have some flexibility.

AUBREY: The Healthy Hungry-free Kids Act is now 5 years old. And Congress begins the process of reauthorizing the law this month. The School Nutrition Association has found some lawmakers who support the changes they're asking for. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department oversees the school nutrition programs, says he's opposed to any rollbacks.

TOM VILSACK: This is not the time to take a step back. This is a time to double down.

AUBREY: Vilsack says there's good evidence that the law is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

VILSACK: The CDC just recently came out with a report that indicates the meals are indeed healthier. A study from Harvard Public Health School shows that kids are eating more fruits and vegetables.

AUBREY: And given the evidence that links salt to high blood pressure, Vilsack says it does not make sense to cave in and weaken any of the nutrition standards.

VILSACK: This is what we need to be doing for the benefit of our children.

AUBREY: Vilsack says there is help available for school districts who are struggling to keep kids on board. The USDA offers access to training and lots of resources to help schools make their new, healthier menus more appealing. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.