Are Healthier School Lunches Improving Health or Wasting Food?

 

For several years, the debate has raged on about healthy school lunches. Will students eat more or less if forced to consume fruits and vegetables? The Harvard School of Public Health sent researchers to several schools to find out.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandated new standards for healthier meals in America’s public schools.

The new healthy meal system, which was put into action by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, stated that school meals had to have less sodium and sugar and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Calorie limits for each meal are now 650 for grades kindergarten through fifth, 700 for grades six through eight and 850 for high school.

Supporters of the healthy lunch program say that the new system is helping to fight obesity and that children and young adults are now eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less sodium and sugar. Their diets are now healthier because a large percentage of the food kids eat is at school. Jamie Stang, an epidemiologist, is a supporter of the new school diet.

“’Overall, the rates of obesity in school-aged youth have remained steady over the past several years,” she said. ‘This is partially due to the changes in school meal standards, since school meals make up a large percentage of the food youth eat each day. Several U.S. schools who had implemented similar nutrition standards well before the national ruling took effect are starting to see reductions in obesity risk and rates.’”

Opponents of the programs insist that much of the healthy food goes into the trash. They see it as a waste of money and resources because they think kids do not like fruits and vegetables and therefore will not eat them. Many maintain that they cannot force students to eat fruits and vegetables, especially older students.

The Harvard study found that there was not a significant increase in food being wasted after the healthy diet mandate. They observed more than 1,000 students in four low income schools in Boston. They visited the schools twice before the new healthy lunch standards in 2011 and twice after the new mandate in 2012.

They found that more students are now choosing fruit, about 76% in 2012, up from 53%  in 2011. The kids also ate more vegetables, from 25% in 2011 to 41% in 2012.

The leader of the Harvard School of Public Health study, Juliana Cohen, thinks that students would be more likely to choose fruits and vegetables if schools put in more of an effort to make them palatable, colorful and plantlike.