It’s been a rough couple of years for the National School Lunch Program.

Participation in the federal school lunch program has dropped nearly 4 percent, more than 1 million students, since the 2012 Healthy Kids mandates were enacted. First Lunch Lady Michele Obama is also in a big food fight with the School Nutrition Association over the mandates that have resulted in hungry kids, lots of waste, and even fraud (see more here and here).  

But there’s good news for federal food boosters.  A new study published today in Childhood Obesity is generating headlines about students embracing  healthier lunches after all. Well, not exactly…if you read the report instead of just the headlines.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a nationally representative survey of 557 elementary school administrators and food service staff. They found that 70 percent of elementary school administrators believe students now like the new lunches, although  more than half (54 percent) agreed that at first students complained. Nearly 60 percent or more also agreed that roughly the same proportion of students are buying and eating their lunches compared to before the stricter healthy eating regulations went into effect.

What didn’t make the headlines was the fact that the researchers did not validate administrators’ reported perceptions against actual plate waste or school lunch participation rates (p. 7). Whatever school administrators might be saying, parents aren’t buying it.

According to another recent survey of more than 1,000 parents, less than 6 percent say they believe school lunches are healthier than they were before the 2012 mandates went into effect.