Efforts To Improve School Lunch Programs--Are They Paying Off?

CED-81-121: Published: Sep 9, 1981. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 1981.

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School food service programs across the Nation, especially in high schools, are having difficulty in effectively providing lunches to the Nation's children. Many programs are faced with increasing meal costs, declining student participation, plate waste, and unanswered questions about the nutrients in the meals. GAO reviewed seven school districts to determine if their innovative approaches were solving or aggravating problems in the lunch program.

None of the high school lunch formats reviewed met the program's recommended dietary allowances even though the lunches as offered, on the average, met or exceeded the amounts of food required by the Department of Agriculture. Because students also eat at other times of the day, there may be no health risk associated with these nutrient deficiencies. Upgrading the lunches' nutritional quality to meet all the goals may be difficult and may not be feasible in all cases because attempts to improve nutrition may adversely affect participation, cost, and plate waste. A test of a computer assisted nutrient standard system of meal planning is being conducted to develop menus based on nutritional value of foods rather than the meal pattern. A review of program regulations called for in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 could have an important impact on the nutrient content of school lunches and on program goals. Offering high school students a greater food selection and improving the eating environment seem to increase program participation. GAO found less plate waste in programs using the fast-food format versus the conventional format and that offering a variety of foods from which students may choose helps to reduce plate waste. Having fast-food and salad formats, in addition to the conventional format in a lunch program, does not necessarily increase costs. However, school lunch costs in the school districts which GAO reviewed continually increased from school years 1976-77 through 1979-80.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Due to widespread misunderstanding of proposed meal pattern regulations issued on September 4, 1981, the proposal was withdrawn and is being reevaluated in light of public and congressional reaction. Agriculture said that the GAO recommendations will be considered in this reevaluation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should take a fresh look at Agriculture's one-third recommended dietary allowance (RDA) goal for school lunches and decide whether the achievement of some specified goal, such as one-third RDA, within acceptable limits of plate waste, cost, and student participation is considered unnecessary or impractical, and whether the goal should be dropped, and the program operated on the basis of providing a variety of foods within a specified meal pattern or some other achievable criteria. The Secretary should also decide whether the serving of lunches that will provide either one-third or some other specified percentages of the RDA's over time is considered important for students' nutritional well-being, and whether ways must be developed to ensure that the goal is essentially met within acceptable limits of plate waste, cost, and student participation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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