Current Challenges

The current challenges of the NSLP can be broken down into three major categories: caloric and nutritional needs, food waste, and rising costs.

Caloric and nutritional needs
For some time, the measurement from which the NSLP based its cash-reimbursements and meal provisions largely came from caloric requirements. However, while this worked in a time where malnutrition plagued the nation's poverty, the modern focus on caloric intake usurps the nation's stance on the growing obesity epidemic. Balancing nutrition and calories has always been a challenge for the NSLP and its participating schools. This struggle can undermine schools that wish to comply with the national standards while still advocating healthy lifestyles. Another problem that contributes to this challenge is that nutritious food is often considered less favorable than competitive food that is available to students. Given the choice, students will often prefer competitive foods that are not required to meet federal minimum nutrition standards.

Food waste
Children throw away much of the nutritious food that they are served. In a study in Boston Public Schools, "on average, students discarded roughly 19 percent of their entrées, 47 percent of their fruit, 25 percent of their milk, and 73 percent of their vegetables." "It was estimated that $432,349.05 worth of food is wasted annually at lunch by students in Grades 6-8 in Boston Public Schools." Overall, this sum makes up 26.1 percent of these three schools' food budgets, excluding labor and supplies. If translated nationally, Cohen estimates that roughly $1,238,846,400 in food is wasted on an annual basis.

One reason that students discard this amount of food has to do with à la carte lines and vending machines. In a 1998 study of 16 randomly selected schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, the authors discovered a negative correlation between à la carte lines, vending machine use, and fruit and vegetable consumption. On average, students from schools without an à la carte line consumed nearly an entire serving more of fruit and vegetables than did students with such programs. Furthermore, students from all schools exceeded the daily USDA recommended calories from saturated fat, and students from schools with à la carte lines exceeded the recommendations by 1 percent more, on average. Concerning snack vending machines, the authors determined that with each vending machine present, "students' mean intake of fruit servings decreased by 11 percent." Beverage machines showed no significant impact.

Rising costs
A challenge for schools that take part in the NSLP is rising costs of producing lunch. According to the School Lunch and Breakfast Cost Study (SLBCS), one in four school districts reported costs for school lunches above the program reimbursement rate. The additional cost must then be supplemented by school district general funds, and this puts a strain on school district budgets. Additional costs also make it difficult to meet federally mandated nutrition requirements because using the best palatable foods for students becomes too expensive.
According to the 2008 USDA report on the NSLP, "other sources of increasing costs include increases in health care costs for employees and, more recently, rising food costs." For example, in 2008, some school systems in Alabama, California, and Texas raised meal prices to keep up with "steep increases in food costs." The school districts raised prices for paying students, while keeping prices the same for students that qualified for reduced-price or free lunches. This method of cost adjustment leaves either the school district or paying students to bear the burden of the price increase.