Adding more fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren's meals at school cafeterias helped in ensuring that the kids got to have more of these healthy foods in their diet.

This is a favorable development after the federal government updated the standards for school lunches starting on the 2012 school year. The requirements stated that each kid must take at least one vegetable or fruit serving per meal, a policy that led critics to worry that the kids won't finish eating them, or won't even eat them at all. However, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health laid these worries to rest.

The study was led by Juliana F.W. Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, and was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The researchers collected plate-waste data for two days from four schools with 1,030 elementary and middle school children. They found that after the new standards for the school lunch program were implemented during the fall of 2011, about 23 percent more kids chose fruits, while entrée and vegetable selected remained the same as before. After the new standards were being implemented, the kids began to choose vegetables more. There was a 15.6 percent rise in the selection of entrées and a 16.2 percent increase in vegetable consumption.

They also found out that the new standards did not lead to increased food waste, although students did not finish about 60 to 75 percent of their vegetables and 40 percent of their fruits. These are more or less the same amount of waste that is generated before the new standards were enforced. The study authors pinpoint food quality as the cause of the waste, and not the new standards per se.

"While the new standards make important changes by requiring reimbursable school meals to have increased quantities of fruits and vegetables and more vegetable variety, this may not be sufficient," said the study. "Schools must also focus on the quality and palatability of the fruits and vegetables offered and on creative methods to engage students to taste and participate in selection of menu items to decrease overall waste levels."

The new USDA Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program increased the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables , increased the portion sizes of fruits and vegetables, and required the kids to choose at least one fruit or vegetable during every lunch. Calorie and sodium content of all the foods were also limited, and trans fats were removed.

Despite the apparent nutritional strength of the program, some critics and lawmakers have tried to pressure the USDA to make some of the school standards more lenient. Yet the study said that school meals can have significant implications on the health of schoolchildren because many students from low-income families rely on school meals for about half of their daily energy intake.

"Lawmakers should not consider further weakening the school meal standards. 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 study concluded

ⓒ 2021 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.