An update from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) this week reported that student participation in the National School Lunch Program, nationwide, declined by 1.2 million students (or 3.7 percent) from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2012-2013, after having increased steadily for many years.

This decrease was driven primarily by a decline of 1.6 million students eating school lunch who pay the full price for meals, despite increases in students eating school lunch who receive free meals. State and local officials reported that the changes to lunch content and nutrition requirements, as well as other factors, influenced student participation. For example, almost all states reported through GAO’s national survey that obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging during school year 2012-2013, which likely affected participation in the program. Federal, state, and local officials reported that federally required increases to lunch prices, which affected many districts, also likely influenced participation.

School food authorities faced several challenges implementing the new lunch content and nutrition requirements in school year 2012-2013. For example, most states reported that school food authorities faced challenges with addressing plate waste–or foods thrown away rather than consumed by students–and managing food costs, as well as planning menus and obtaining foods that complied with portion size and calorie requirements. School food authorities that GAO visited also cited these challenges. However, both states and school food authorities reported that they expect many of these areas  will become less challenging over time, with the exception of food costs, insufficient food storage and kitchen equipment, and the forthcoming limits on sodium in lunches.

The National School Lunch Program served more than 31 million children in fiscal year 2012.  The Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required USDA to update nutrition standards for lunches.  USDA issued new requirements for lunch components–fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and milk–and for calories, sodium and fats in meals.  USDA overseas state administration of the program.  The changes were generally required to be implemented in school year 2012-2013.