There’s news coming in about the effect of the new nutritional guidelines for U.S. schools and it does appear to be encouraging. New standards went into effect in 2012 that required students to include at least one fruit or vegetable on their lunch trays.
A new study that’s been released from the Harvard School of Public Health clearly shows that there are students who are eating more fruits and vegetables at lunch. Of course, they’re still tossing plenty of produce into the trash, researchers are taking the results as an encouraging sign.
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 the new standards became effective.
In addition to requiring the addition of a fruit or vegetable with lunch, the standards have made vegetable servings bigger and have provided a greater variety of vegetables from which students can choose. 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 55% in 2012, down slightly from 58% 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.
Those of us with children might think back to our pediatrician’s advice when it came to feeding our toddlers. It was simply to offer a variety of healthy food choices for them to try. Improving the nutritional quality of the food choices in our schools and offering a wider variety of fruits and vegetables actually echoes the advice given to parents for their little ones.
When schools followed the new rules and offered foods with better nutritional value, our kids made better choices at lunch because the choices given were better. In addition, when required to choose a fruit or a vegetable while being given a wider array of selections, more kids actually ate the fruit or vegetable. FoodFacts.com does think this is largely about the choices given. Yes, we know that there’s still plenty of produce that finds its way to the trash can, but we certainly don’t think we should be taking steps to reverse or slow down any of these changes. We know most children aren’t ecstatic about fruits and vegetables. Whatever we can do to help them eat more of them during lunch should be done. And we should all feel encouraged that there are some indications that lunch habits seem to be improving.