The National School Boards Association reported Monday that 83.7 percent of school districts around the country have seen an increase in wasted school lunch food since a 2010 law was passed mandating new nutrition rules.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was aimed at creating healthier school lunches, but several schools have rebelled against the new rules. Many school districts have reported that while the law requires kids to be served a certain amount of fruits and vegetables, much of that food is being thrown in the trash, resulting in a more costly program that's not getting results.
First lady Michelle Obama championed changes to school lunch programs, but many kids are protesting those rules by tossing healthier food in the trash. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The NSBA survey seems to confirm that, with its finding that more than four-fifths of school districts are seeing an increase in "plate waste." The survey said 81.8 percent of schools saw cost increases, and 76.5 percent saw a reduction in participation by students.
Other formal reports about the law have found similar problems. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office reported that 48 out of 50 states were having trouble implementing the law.
Anecdotal evidence also continues to pile up about complaints with the law and its effects. On Monday, a Kentucky elementary school said it was banning ice cream and cake from birthday parties — the law does not apply to food brought from home, but many schools are going further than the law requires in their mission to ensure healthier eating.
The law was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and the Obama administration broadly as a way to improve the nutritional content of food. But complaints around the nation have led to calls for the repeal of the law, or giving schools more flexibility in how they implement it.
The NSBA said 60 percent of school leaders support that, but said 75 percent of them support increased federal funds to help them comply with the law.
"Our poll shows that school leaders are in favor of good nutrition for children but concerned with the unintended consequences of the current federal regulations," NSBA Executive Director Tom Gentzel said. "Trays of uneaten cafeteria food thrown in the trash, hungry kids, and struggling school food-service programs are the practical realities many school districts and students face."
The group proposed a few ideas for greater flexibility that would let school districts serve healthy food "that students will eat — not throw away and go home hungry."
Those options include exempting food sold outside school lunches from the new program. Under current law, all food sold at school during the day must comply with the standards.
The group also proposed giving some school districts waivers if they are struggling to implement the law.
"Overly rigid and unrealistic federal mandates undermine the ability of school districts to do what the law intends: prepare and serve nutritious food that enables America's public schoolchildren to grow, learn, and thrive," Gentzel said.
Rising costs are another factor, and the group said the law is leading to "alarming choices" that school districts are facing as they try to implement the law.
"Increasing the price of unsubsidized meals, dipping into reserves and other school district funds, delaying investments in equipment, facilities, and other necessities, and reducing staff and hours, are just a few of the alternatives school districts have had to do," the group said.
The NSBA said it supports a temporary waiver option included in a fiscal year 2015 funding bill in the House, and also a Republican bill from Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) that would give schools more school lunch options that currently provided under the law.