Small study of low-income elementary and middle students in Boston area show increase in fruit and vegetable consumption since USDA school lunch standards went into effect in 2012; study first to track such behavior since standards went into effect
March 4, 2014
– Study: New school lunch rules work
New school lunch rules mean some students are eating more fruits and vegetables, even while tossing plenty of apples and carrots in the trash, a new study shows.
But the waste is nothing new and the increased fruit and vegetable consumption found at four urban schools is an encouraging sign, say researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reporting Tuesday in theAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine.
While the study is limited to 1,030 students at low-income elementary and middle schools in the Boston area, it is the first to track student trays from the lunch line to the trash can since new standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture went into effect in 2012.
Those standards say students must take at least one fruit or vegetable. They make vegetable servings bigger and call for a greater variety of vegetables. They also limit calories and sodium and call for more whole grains than in the past. Some anecdotal reports suggest students nationwide are throwing away more food as a result.
"But the new standards are actually improving diets," at least at the schools studied, says lead researcher Juliana Cohen.
Research teams visited each school twice before the changes, in fall 2011, and twice after the changes, in fall 2012. They noted tray contents in the lunch line and then collected the numbered trays and weighed the leftovers after lunch. Among key findings:
• All students took entrees, which included foods such as pizza, burgers and sandwich wraps. They ate 88% of those foods in 2012, vs. 72% in 2011.
• 68% took vegetables in both years. They ate 41% in 2012, vs. 25% in 2011.
• 76% took fruit in 2012, up from 53% in 2011. They ate 58% in 2012, down slightly from 55% in 2011 – but because more students chose fruit, overall consumption rose, researchers say.
Kids threw away huge amounts of fruits and vegetables, but the study shows that was happening before the change, Cohen says.
The findings come as school food service directors, represented by the School Nutrition Association, are in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress to eliminate mandatory servings of fruits and vegetables and slow down other changes. They cite a report just out from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showing a 3.7% decline in students taking school lunches.
"Our members have always encouraged students to take fruits and vegetables, but it's counterproductive to force it," especially for older students, says Leah Schmidt, president of the association and director of nutrition services at the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, Mo. "There are students who will not eat a fruit or vegetable, and as they get older, they feel they have that right."
She says the new study is "a very small sample… but I'm glad some schools are experiencing that" increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.
"Kids are picky," and change is hard, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that fought for tougher standards. Schools can reduce waste and get more kids on board without weakening the standards, she says.
"Many schools are working really hard not only to improve the nutritional quality of their offerings but to improve the kid appeal," she says.
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