US lawmakers will be voting in less than a month on whether to reauthorize the program mandating healthier school lunches just as a new study has confirmed what school officials have thought all along – that quite a few students are putting the fruits and vegetables on their trays straight into the trash. The end result is that students are consuming less of the healthy food items than they did before the law took effect, writes Sally McCay of the University of Vermont.
The study, published in Public Health Reports, is the first to use actual photographs of students’ lunch trays before and after they had eaten. It was also the first time a study has compared fruit and vegetable consumption before the legislation was in place and after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed.
After the legislation passed and the US Department of Agriculture put the mandates in place, students did put more of the required fruits and vegetables on their trays, but they consumed less of them and increased waste by around 56%.
“The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption,” says Sarah Amin, Ph.D., a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont and lead author on the study.
Amin says the study shows that the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” In fact, she added, it was disappointing to see the apples and oranges being thrown away. This information was based on documentation of almost 500 tray observations at more than ten visits to two elementary schools in the Northeast before the guideline was implemented and almost twice as many observations after the implementation. At these schools, 40% to 60% of the student population qualified for free or reduced lunch, which is an indicator of low socioeconomic status.
The use of visual estimations and calculations based on digital imaging were both faster and more accurate than measurements based on simply weighing food waste.
“The beauty of this method is that you have the data to store and code to indicate what was selected, what was consumed, and what was wasted as opposed to weighed plate waste, where everything needs to be done on site,” said Amin, who hopes to develop an online training tutorial that could be used by schools across the country to measure consumption and waste.
The researchers had suggestions for tactics that could motivate students to actually eat the fruits and vegetables such as offering dips, cutting up the fruits and vegetables, and taking into consideration the types of fruits and vegetables children prefer. In previous studies, it has been found that children sometimes prefer processed vegetables and fruits like pizza sauce and 100% fruit juices, writes Stephen Feller of UPI.
The USDA mandate, which was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, was controversial from the beginning. Some school officials said the healthy food on the students’ lunch trays would just be thrown away, but supporters said kids would rise to the occasion and make the right choice with a little encouragement.
The Washington Post’s Ariana Eunjung Cha writes that the researchers also believe the mandate will eventually get kids to eat the right foods and the idea to improve children’s diets should not be tossed aside. A Harvard School of Public Health study and a USDA statement in The Washington Post reported that overall, children are now eating healthier foods.