Analysis

Students Eat More, Waste Less After School Lunch Nutrition Changes

More children are choosing and eating fruit with their lunches and kids are consuming more of their entrees and vegetables since the introduction of healthier school meals during the 2012-13 school year, a new study finds. The analysis, published March 4 in Childhood Obesity, is the first to reliably measure what students ate before and after the implementation of stronger national nutrition standards for school meal programs, and contradicts anecdotal reports about students rejecting healthier foods.

Researchers with the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut tracked middle school students for three years, photographing and weighing the foods they selected, ate, and threw away. Main findings include:

  • Fruits: The percentage of students selecting fruit increased to 66 percent in 2014, up from 54 percent in 2012. The amount consumed of each fruit serving remained level at 74 percent. Researchers observed that when schools offered a larger variety of fruit, students were more likely to select a serving for their lunch.
  • Vegetables: Although the proportion of children taking a serving of vegetables dropped between 2012 and 2014, the students who did add vegetables to their lunches—more than 50 percent of the population—ate more of them and wasted less.
  • Entrees: Students ate on average 84 percent of their entrees in 2014, 13 percentage points more than they consumed in 2012, increasing their nutritional intake and reducing overall food waste.

At Congress’ direction, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program in 2012 to reflect current science on kids’ dietary needs and eating habits. Under the revised rules, each lunch served with at least three food items—including a serving of fruit or vegetables—qualifies the school for a federal reimbursement.

Nationwide more than 90 percent of schools are meeting the updated lunch standards; the Rudd Center’s findings add to growing evidence that children generally enjoy the healthier cafeteria fare. A national survey of school leaders found widespread student acceptance of healthier meals across all grade levels, and polling shows that parents support the current nutrition standards for school meals and snacks by a 3-1 ratio.

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