School Lunch: Students Are Eating More Fruit and Throwing Away Less

School Lunch: Students Are Eating More Fruit and Throwing Away Less
Image: Pixabay
March 5, 2015

A study released this week found that since changing nutritional standards for school lunches, children are eating more fruits and vegetables and decreasing the amount that ends up in the trash.

The study, released by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, found that over three years the percentage of students choosing fruit increased more than 10 percent and students that chose vegetables ate more and threw away less.

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated the nutritional standards for the National School Lunch Program. After the new policies were implemented during the 2012-2013 school year, the media reported an increase of food waste from children disliking the new healthy choices. The reports and backlash seemed to be bolstered by a 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health that found that less than 85 percent of food was being consumed.

According to Marlene Schwartz, the study's lead author and Rudd Center director, there have been few empirical studies on student consumption of the new lunches. "One study measured plate waste after the new standards went into effect and found that 45 percent of the food was being thrown away; however, they did not have any prepolicy baseline measures for comparison," wrote Schwartz.

The Rudd Center study, however, tracked middle school students before and after the standards were implemented.

Researchers collected data annually from students in 12 schools in an urban, low-income school district where more than 70 percent of the students qualify for free lunch.

The study found that between 2012 and 2014 the percentage of students choosing fruit significantly increased from 54 percent to 66 percent and fruit consumption remained at 74 percent. Researchers also found that students are more likely to choose fruit when more variety is offered. Students choosing fruit increased by 9 percent for each additional type of fruit offered with the meal.

Fruit, it seems, is a more popular choice than vegetables. Students who chose a vegetable dropped from 68 percent to 52 percent, but the students that did chose vegetables ate nearly 20 percent more, reducing the amount that ended up in the trash.

The new rules require that entrees include proteins and whole grains, and less sodium. The study found that students ate more of their entrée as consumption increased from 71 percent to 84 percent, further decreasing food waste.

The study comes at a time when Republican legislators are looking to roll back the whole grain and salt standards to entice more students into the cafeteria. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) is proposing that schools would be allowed to revert back to the 2012 standards, which require at least half of all grains served in a school breakfast and lunch to be whole grain rich. Now, 100 percent of all grains are required to be whole grain rich. Hoeven's proposal has the support of the School Nutrition Association, which has asked for more reimbursement from the federal government and relaxed nutritional standards.

"This new study adds to a growing body of scientific research that shows these standards are working. It is clear that kids are now eating healthier food and throwing less food away," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. "For Congress to meddle with doctors' recommendations and go back to less healthy meals now would not be in the best interest of our children."

Do your kids brown-bag it? Click here for tips for making a healthy and safe school lunch.