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School Lunch: Food Waste or Clean Plates?

By Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

If you give kids more fruits and vegetables, do they eat more? That’s a key question facing Congress as it gears up to debate legislation authorizing the National School Lunch Program and other healthy food initiatives for children. A new study from researchers at the University of Connecticut suggests the answer is “yes.”

The university’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity released a study last week that shows updated school nutrition standards put in place two years ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working. During lunch, kids are choosing more fruits, eating more vegetables, and throwing away less food. This is good news for children, parents, and the taxpayers who subsidize school lunches.

The Rudd Center collected data from 1,343 students across 12 middle schools before the updated standards went into effect (in 2012) and after (in 2013 and 2014) in a low-income urban school district. By weighing and photographing the food on the kid’s lunch trays, researchers were able to identify and measure what items children were eating and the quantities consumed.

Eating more and throwing away less

Researchers found that between 2012 and 2014 the percentage of students selecting fruit increased from 54% to 66%. One year after implementing nutrition standards the percentage of students selecting vegetables decreased from 68% to 62%, but total consumption of vegetables went up by 20 percent. From 2012 to 2014 students selected more meal entrées (from 91% to 98%), and the portion of those entrée items actually consumed increased from 71% pre-standards to 84% post-standards.

Also noteworthy: the study found that giving kids more fruit choices increases consumption. Having one additional type of fruit to choose from in the cafeteria was associated with a 9 percent increase in the fruit selected.

The Rudd Center’s study comes shortly after UCS released its own report on school lunch and kids’ diet. Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the way to a Healthier Future documented that kids in free and reduced-price lunch programs ate more fruits and vegetables than kids not in the program, even before the improved standards went into place.

Study limitations? Note them, but don’t dismiss the findings

Several of the study’s critics, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA), question the positive findings. Speaking to the New York Times, Diane Pratt-Heavner, a SNA representative, commented, “We have lots of concerns about this study because, among other things, it only collected data on one day each year at these schools.” While this is true, researchers did collect data different months each year (April, May, and June) to help control for seasonality (such as fluctuating food prices or menu availability).

Pratt-Heavner also notes, “And of course you’re going to see an increase in students getting fruit. Under the new rules, they have to take a fruit when they come through the lunch line.” Again, true. However, researchers measured both selection (choosing an item) and consumption (eating an item) and found that increased selection did not lead to increased plate waste—meaning kids are cleaning their plates!

But my favorite detail about this study is how the authors measure “fruit.” While schools are allowed to count 100% fruit juice as a child’s fruit serving, this study didn’t even include it in their fruit measurement. What does that mean? Well first, the study authors set the bar higher for themselves by not including fruit juice! Second, and more importantly, kids are selecting and consuming whole fruit…not a nutritionally pale substitute!

Updated school nutrition standards are working

The bottom line is that increased selection and consumption of fruits and vegetables has led to decreased plate waste. What’s great about this study is that it shows the updated school nutrition standards are working—and they are working for schools whose students come from limited-income homes.

Editor’s Note: Lindsey Haynes-Maslow is an expert on the intersection between food systems, nutrition and public health, as well as the impact of government policies driving the food system. This blog originally appeared in the Union of Concerned Scientists and is reprinted with permission.

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