Serving young children healthier food choices and having them eat a more nutritional offering are clearly two different things, according to the results of a new study from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The research involved the observation of 274 children in kindergarten through second grade in 10 New York City public schools as they chose their food during one lunch period. First, the researchers watched to see if each six-through-eight-year olds chose a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, low-fat milk, and/or a lean protein. Then, pictures were taken of their trays before they ate and at the end of their lunch period.
The results showed that 75% of the children chose the entrÃ©e (the lean protein), 58% chose a fruit, and 59% chose a vegetable — but only 75% took a bite of the protein, and just 24% ate a bite of their vegetables.
"We have been thinking that if young children choose healthy food, they will eat it," says Susan M. Gross, PhD, MPH, a research associate in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But our research shows that is not necessarily so."
Gross reports that the lunchroom environment had a major impact on whether the kids ate their lunches. The noise level, the supervision level, the number of children in the cafeteria, the length of the lunch period, and the food packaging all made a difference. The students were more likely to eat their food if a teacher ate in the lunchroom with them. More children ate their vegetables and whole grains when the environment was quieter, although the noise level had little effect on eating other food groups.The young ones were more likely to eat when their food was cut up and when lunch periods were longer.
Congress is set to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act in 2015, which funds the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program. A few years ago, new guidelines were put in place by the US Department of Agriculture which mandated that schools serve healthier foods such as whole grains, lean protein, and low fat milk. The new requirements were criticized by many because mass production of these foods can be difficult and more costly.
"As much as we are focused on menus in the school lunch program, we need to look more at our cafeteria environments, especially with our youngest children," Gross says. "We can give kids the healthiest food possible, but if they don't have time to eat it or they are distracted by how noisy the cafeteria is, they're not going to eat it. They're on their own and we need to do as much as possible to help them through that lunch period."
Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation, says that research shows what school nutrition officials have been saying all along, which is that there is a large amount of food waste, writes Kate Scanlon of The Heritage Foundation's The Daily Signal. He adds that children who are not eating the food they are given are going to leave the lunchroom hungry.
Bakst says that getting children to eat should be the top priority. He also questions whether the federal government and First Lady Michelle Obama should really be telling others how children should be fed. He believes that those decisions should be made by local government and parents.
On NBC's Today Show, Gross said that she was surprised that environmental factors had so much bearing on health eating. A study of students in middle school which took place last year estimated that young people could waste as much as $1.2 billion per year on school lunches. Half the fruit, three-quarters of the vegetables, and a quarter of the milk was thrown out.
JAMA Pediatrics published a study which showed that if vending machines and snack bars were filled with foods that met the USDA standards, it would substantially help students who attend schools which do not have the five USDA healthy nutritional components in place. Revised lunch standards were implemented in the 2012-2013 school year. Breakfast requirements went into effect in the 2013-2014 school year.
In the 2014-2015 school year school meal programs are required to meet nutritional standards for food and beverages sold in vending machines and snack bars. These standards were in response to the rising overweight-obesity problem among US children.
Five years of nationally representative information from middle and high school students who had access to USDA standard components, and those who did not, by Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath, M.S.A. of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and her co-authors, came to one conclusion.
"Results illustrate that the USDA standards – if implemented fully and monitored for compliance – have the potential to change the current U.S. school nutritional environment significantly. The new federal policy may be a carrot at the end of the stick that drives schools to make these important changes. In addition to the stick-and-carrot, substantial tangible help in making the switch and incentives to sweeten the deal from state and federal sources are likely needed," said the author.