Just because you put it on my plate doesn’t mean I’m going to eat it.
This is the finding from a behavioral study in response to student lunch changes as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign and school lunch regulations from the federal government. Students are eating fewer fruits and vegetables even though more are on their plate, leading to a distressing amount of wasted food.
This comes just before the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released its report praising the number schools who have doubled up on serving fruits and veggies.
When researchers studied the eating habits of students at two public elementary schools before and after the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) mandates – increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables that are offered and decreasing sodium usage – went into effect, they found what we’ve expected. The third-, fourth-, and fifth- grade students took 29 percent more fruits and veggies, but their consumption went down by 13 percent. In addition, they were throwing away 56 percent more food than before.
Looking at photos of the meals before and after the students eat their lunch, we see that the waste produced rose from a quarter of a cup to more than 39 percent of a cup each meal. The researchers note that the kids did not even taste the fruits and veggies they put on their trays.
That’s a huge finding that validates the fear of wasted school lunch funding. With tight budgets, schools can’t afford to throw money away – literally. Furthermore, this does nothing to achieve the goals of reducing obesity. Kids will just go hungry until they can binge afterward.
The Washington Post reports:
"The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption. The answer was clearly no," Amin, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.
While the research was limited to two schools in the Northeast with a high percentage of students on free or reduced meals and therefore may not be generalizeable to other parts of the country, the findings provide an important data point as Congress prepares to vote on whether to reauthorize the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which provides funding and sets policy for the USDA's child nutrition programs.
Despite the negative findings in their study, Amin and her colleagues said they believe the new mandate will eventually get children eating right. They suggested that school cafeteria managers consider other ways of offering fruits and vegetables such as cutting them up and serving them with a dip or slicing apples instead of serving them whole.
A study published last year by Harvard School of Public Health researchers supports that optimistic view.
The group also looked at food waste but used a different methodology from Amin by collecting the leftovers and sorting and weighing them. They found that students discarded roughly 40 percent of fruit on their trays and 60 to 75 percent of vegetables. Those are high numbers, and while the researchers recognized that this is a big problem, they took a positive view of their overall results — writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that their findings “suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality.”
Researchers must admit that this is generating a lot of wasted food, though they remain optimistic.
Michelle O. and the FDA have some explaining to do, but they’re probably busy patting themselves on the backs. According to the CDC, more U.S. schools are working to meet the new school lunch requirements – not a reason to celebrate since these are mandates not optional.
The CDC’s report found that 79.4 percent of schools were offering two or more vegetables and 78 percent of schools were offering two or more fruits at lunch each day, up from 61.7 percent and 68.1 percent in 2000, respectively. Nearly all schools are offering whole grains at breakfast and lunch and nearly a third (20.5 percent) have a self-serve salad bar.
Schools aren’t embracing the reduced sodium levels at nearly the same pace with just barely over half working to meeting lower sodium levels.
The Hill reports:
Of the schools studied, 65.1 percent said they were using other seasonings instead of salt, up from 32.8 percent in 2000, and 68 percent were reducing the amount of sodium called for in recipes or using low-sodium recipes, up from 34.1 percent.
“School meals are healthier now than ever before,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a release. “We’ve made real progress, but there is much more to do to help American children make food choices that will keep them healthy throughout their lives.”
The CDC recommends schools partner with Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, an organization that raises money to donate salad bars to schools, and work with CDC-funded staff in state health departments to get further training and resource materials for school administrators, teachers and parents.
The agency also said school officials should ensure their meal programs are equipped with the proper equipment to prepare and serve fruits and vegetables, like food processors, knives, cutting boards and refrigerators.
These food police officials are naïve at best. They spin students being forced to take food as a demonstration that the mandates are working to change behavior. The real change in behavior is that kids are wasting more food.
Critics are right to question whether mandates on school lunch are the best way to address childhood obesity – a legitimate problem. However, the one-size-fits-all approach of government to school to student leaves the most critical element out entirely: parents and family. Children learn more about making decisions from their environments as they do from school.
When parents have a say and can choose to help their kids understand what they put in their bodies, the impact will be stronger than slapping a third grader’s plate full of broccoli and calling that success.