Left to their own devices, it's rare that we think of kids making the right choices - surely, they'd choose chips and chocolate in favor of carrots and broccoli. Right?
Maybe not. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health looked at food waste remaining from children's lunches at four low-income schools in Massachusetts before and after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) healthy eating guidelines were enforced in school cafeterias. Analyzing food waste of around 1,030 students, researchers found that fruit selection picked up from 52.7 percent to 75.7 percent, while vegetable selection similarly increased, from 24.9 percent to 41.1 percent. Of course, the newly-introduced guidelines, which require students to take at least one fruit and one vegetable, have been instrumental in this shift.
The USDA's guidelines had previously come under fire, with many claiming that forcing children to take fruit and vegetables would result in increased food waste. While fruit and vegetable waste remains high, it also remains consistent - the implementation of the USDA's recommendations has not resulted in an upswing of waste, meaning that more fruits and vegetables are being consumed even if the same amount is disposed of, thanks to larger portion sizes of both. "There is a push from some organizations and lawmakers to weaken the new standards. We hope the findings, which show that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables, will discourage those efforts," said the study's leader author, Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH. Nevertheless, the volume of food thrown out - some 60 to 70 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruit - indicates that schools need to improve the quality of the produce made available to students.
The data is particularly important given that several low-income students receive half of their daily energy intake from school meals. The new guidelines have made whole wheat products more accessible, fruit and vegetable selection compulsory (and serving sizes larger), and reduced sodium and trans fat levels in meals. The findings were not wholly unexpected, but nevertheless came as a pleasant surprise to the research team.
"We were surprised by the vegetable findings," said Cohen in an interview with NBC News. "We thought perhaps it was because students were eating more potato-based products like French fries, which count as a vegetable (in federal standards). We were very surprised to see that potato-based products weren't being served on study days. Kids loved fresh vegetables, especially baby carrots."
"The new school meal standards are the strongest implemented by the USDA to date, and the improved dietary intakes will likely have important health implications for children," the researchers wrote.
The study, titled Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste, was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.