A new national survey of school meal program operators by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) 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 SNA’s School Nutrition Operations Report: The State of School Nutrition 2014, based on survey responses from 1,102 school nutrition directors 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, with Mexican and Asian dishes being most prevalent (served in 98% and 88% of districts, respectively) while Middle Eastern options have experienced the greatest growth, now being 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 64% of districts currently engage in student taste testing of new menu items and 55% offer nutrition education in the classroom. Other outreach initiatives that are growing since the 2011 survey include...
• 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. 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 a slight 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, being 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,” says 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, with peanuts being 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.