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Federal Food Service Operations: Implementation of the HHS/GSA Health and Sustainability Guidelines

GAO-15-262R Published: Dec 23, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 23, 2014.
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What GAO Found

The Health and Sustainability Guidelines for Federal Concessions and Vending Operations that were jointly released in 2011 by the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), called the HHS/GSA guidelines, are being implemented in some GSA and HHS food service operations, but data on the implementation are limited. As of August 2014, GSA reported that most vendors operating cafeterias in GSA facilities had implemented some or all of the HHS/GSA guidelines either under a contract requirement or voluntarily. Specifically, GSA reported that it awarded about 100 contracts to operate cafeterias, some of which predate the release of the HHS/GSA guidelines. Of these contracts, GSA reported that about half required vendors to implement some or all of the HHS/GSA guidelines; and of the remaining contracts that did not require vendors to implement the guidelines, most of these vendors were voluntarily implementing the guidelines, or offering some healthy options or implementing sustainable practices. Additionally, GSA reported that some food services in its facilities are operated under permits under the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Facilities Program, which is administered by the Department of Education (Education). The program was created by federal law to give blind individuals priority to operate vending facilities, including vending machines, snack bars, and cafeterias (which GAO calls food service operations), on federal properties. Some of these permits predate the HHS/GSA guidelines and, therefore, do not require vendors to implement the guidelines; however, some of these vendors voluntarily offered healthy foods and beverages, or implemented sustainable practices. HHS officials reported that food service operations in some HHS facilities--such as most food service operations in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) facilities in the Atlanta area--have implemented the HHS/GSA guidelines, but the department does not centrally maintain information on food service operations or implementation of the guidelines. GSA and HHS oversight of the implementation of the guidelines, including tracking and monitoring, varies.

Agency officials and stakeholders reported a range of challenges to implementing the HHS/GSA guidelines, including limitations in agencies' ability to require vendors--particularly vendors operating under preexisting Randolph-Sheppard permits--to implement the guidelines; perceived conflicts between the goals of vendors to maximize profits and agencies to offer more healthy foods and beverages; limited availability of food and beverage products that meet the guidelines; and limited information and resources on foods and beverages that meet the HHS/GSA guidelines. Agency officials and stakeholders reported having taken steps to address some of these challenges--for example, establishing a workgroup that includes officials from federal agencies and Randolph-Sheppard vendors. Moreover, agency officials and stakeholders described additional steps that may facilitate implementation of the guidelines, such as providing more information and resources to vendors.

When compared to guidelines developed by the Department of Defense (DOD), National Park Service (NPS), and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the HHS/GSA guidelines have similar elements to these other guidelines--such as limits on sodium and fats--because all of them are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which encourages Americans to eat healthful diets. However, agencies have tailored their guidelines to meet their particular needs; for example, DOD's guidelines include nutritional standards to meet the needs of soldiers.

GSA, HHS, and Education reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments that GAO incorporated, as appropriate.

Why GAO Did This Study

The HHS/GSA guidelines are designed to make healthy and sustainable choices more accessible and appealing. The guidelines are based on information provide in the DGA, which encourages Americans to eat a healthful diet that focuses on foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent disease. The HHS/GSA guidelines apply to all food service concession operations and vending machines managed by GSA and HHS.

GAO was asked to examine the implementation of the HHS/GSA guidelines. This report examines (1) the status of implementation of the HHS/GSA guidelines in GSA and HHS facilities; (2) the challenges, if any, that have been reported in implementing the HHS/GSA guidelines, and how challenges have been addressed; and (3) how the HHS/GSA guidelines compare to health and sustainability guidelines developed by other federal agencies. GAO reviewed the data available from GSA and HHS on food service operations in GSA and HHS facilities, and implementation of the guidelines in these facilities. GAO also reviewed laws and regulations on the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Facilities Program and relevant reports describing vendor experiences implementing the guidelines. GAO interviewed officials from GSA, HHS (including CDC and the National Prevention Council, which is chaired by the Surgeon General), Education, vendor associations, and health advocacy groups. GAO compared the HHS/GSA guidelines to guidelines developed by DOD, NPS, and VA.

For more information, contact Vijay A. D'Souza at (202) 512-7114 or

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Concessions contractsDining facilitiesFederal agenciesFederal facilitiesFood facilitiesFood servicesFood services contractsInternal controlsStandardsNutritionGovernment contractsVegetables