Amid Declining Participation, USDA's School Lunch Program Embraces 'Cultural Inclusion'

By Susan Jones | August 20, 2015 | 6:15 AM EDT

A school chef prepares chicken tacos. (Photo from USDA website)

(CNSNews.com) - The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 changed the nutrition requirements for school lunches and breakfasts, but the U.S. Agriculture Department says the law also gives schools the flexibility to prepare meals that are "familiar to kids from culturally diverse backgrounds."

Blogging at the USDA website on Wednesday, Dr. Katie Wilson, deputy undersecretary for for food, nutrition and consumer services, hailed the nation's "diversity" of people, ideas, and culture: "One of the way culture is expressed is through the foods we eat," she wrote. "Our nation's school meals should be no exception."

Wilson said she recently participated in one of USDA's "Team Up For School Nutrition Success" training workshops, where she learned how school food authorities are finding creative ways to meet the government-mandated nutrition standards while preparing meals that are "tastier and more appealing for this tough audience."

"For instance, I learned that in Puerto Rico, it is common for children to eat arroz con habichuelas y carne de cerdo (rice and beans with pork). Schools are finding ways to prepare this same meal in a healthy way that satisfies the palates of children who are used to eating it at home.

"In the same way, school children in the Southwest region of the United States enjoy burritos and refried beans that are similar to what they might have at home. In West Virginia, schools have found ways to offer healthy versions of Southern-style cooking like sausage gravy and a long-time favorite in the state—the pepperoni roll.

"Our goal at USDA is to ensure children have access to nutritious food that nourishes their growing bodies -- all while embracing diverse cultural customs and cuisines. I’m confident that through cultural inclusion and nutritious choices, schools across America will pave the way for a healthier next generation," Wilson concluded.

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school food preparation is an increasingly regulated industry. In March, the USDA published a rule, effective as of July 1, requiring a minimum amount of annual training for all school nutrition program directors, managers, and staff.

USDA said the training will vary according to the position and job requirements.

The rule also sets minimum hiring standards for new state directors of school nutrition programs, state directors of distributing agencies that oversee USDA Foods, and school nutrition program directors.

Amid the stricter nutrition standards and hiring criteria, participation in the National School Lunch Program has declined since the law was passed.

In 2010, the year the Healthy and Hunger-Free  Kids Act passed, a record 31.8 million children participated into the National School Lunch Program, according to the latest data (as of Aug. 7, 2015). The same number -- 31.8 million -- participated in 2011, but then the number began to drop -- to 31.7 in 2012 (the first year the new nutrition standards took effect), 30.7 in 2013, and 30.4 in 2014.

The percentage of children getting free or reduced-price meals continues to increase, however: In 2014, 71.6 percent of children were getting free or reduced price school lunches, compared with 70.5 percent in 2013, 68.2 percent in 2012, 66.6 percent in 2011, 65.3 percent in 2010.

In 1969, the earliest year for which data is available, 15.1 percent of children were getting free or reduced price lunches.

As participation has dropped, costs have gone up. The cost of the school lunch program was $11,355,872,476 in Fiscal Year 2014, up from $10,414,118,759 in Fiscal Year 2012, partly because of rising food costs and a higher percentage of children getting free or reduced-price lunches.

As of Aug. 7, 2015,  thirty-seven states showed declining school lunch participation in the three years since 2012, when the nutrition rules changed. In the remaining 13 states plus the District of Columbia, participation increased steadily only in North Dakota and the District of Columbia in those same three years.

In the remaining 12 states, participation dropped in 2013, then recovered slightly in 2014.

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