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School Meal Standards Lead to More Fruit, Veggies Eaten

fruits and vegetables on lunch trays


4 March 2014. A study by public health researchers at Harvard University shows children eating lunch at school increased their consumption of fruit and vegetables after new school lunch standards took effect. The team led by nutrition research fellow Juliana Cohen published its results online today in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Cohen and colleagues conducted a before-and-after study of students at eight elementary and K-8 schools in Massachusetts to gauge changes in eating habits after passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, with school meal standards authorized by the law and issued by U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 2011. Some 32 million students eat meals at schools. The new standards made whole grains, fruits, and vegetables more available, required a selection of a fruit or vegetable, increased the size of fruit and vegetable portions, removed trans-fats, and put limits on total calories and sodium in meals.

Harvard’s School of Public Health collaborated with the organization Project Bread, a not-for-profit group in Massachusetts to reduce hunger and promote better nutrition, in a project to implement the standards with meals planned by a professional chef to improve the nutrition and palatability of meals in schools. The researchers observed and measured food selections by students at all eight schools before the standards went into effect (fall of 2011), then after their implementation (fall of 2012) with four schools implementing the standards and the other four schools serving as controls. The team also measured food waste throughout the study.

Some 1,030 students participated, with the vast majority (85%) from low-income homes and eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The median age of the students was 11 years, with a little more than half (54%) girls. More than 8 in 10 students (83%) were Hispanic, with the remainder being white, Asian, and African-American.

The results showed 16 percent more students eating vegetables, and eating a higher volume of vegetables, after the new standards took effect. The amount of fruit consumed stayed about the same from before to after the standards, but the percentage of students selecting fruit as part of their meals increased 23 points from 53 to 75 percent. While all students selected an entree as part of their meals before and after the standards, the consumption of the entrees increased 16 points, from 72 to 88 percent.

Implementation of standards did not result in an increase in food waste, a concern from the increased serving sizes and requirement to include a fruit or vegetable selection. However, food waste at these schools was quite high both before and after the standards took effect. Students in the study discarded 60 to 75 percent of their vegetables and 40 percent of fruit on their lunch trays.

Critics of the standards questioned their need and cost when first proposed, with continuing attempts by critics to weaken the standards. “We hope the findings, which show that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables, will discourage those efforts,” says Cohen in a university statement.

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