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New USDA School Meal Standards Positively Impact Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Low-Income Students

Posted on March 5, 2014

With nearly 32 million American students receiving government-subsidized meals every day, getting children the nutrition they need is a priority for schools as well as legislators. In the fall of 2012, revamped school lunch guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) went into effect. New standards necessitate increased availability of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, require students to select either a fruit or vegetable as one of their lunch items, and mandate larger portion sizes for fruits and vegetables.

Initially, the guidelines were maligned by food service directors, teachers, parents, and students who claimed that forcing larger portion sizes and requiring students to select a fruit or vegetable they may not want to eat would lead to an increase in food waste. While mostly anecdotal, these concerns were potentially problematic if true. To find out, researchers looked at cafeteria food waste from four low-income urban schools in Massachusetts, both before and after the new USDA standards went into effect. Their findings are published in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Investigators found that the new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste, and that percentages of food discarded remained roughly the same both pre- and post-implementation of the new regulations. Investigators did discover that the new guidelines have resulted in increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, along with students eating more of their main entrée.

After the new regulations went into effect, the percentage of students selecting a fruit increased significantly (from 52.7% to 75.7%), but there was no corresponding rise in food waste, meaning that there was a substantial increase in the number of students consuming fruits. For children who selected a vegetable, both the percentage consumed (24.9% pre-implementation vs 41.1% post-implementation) and cups per day consumed (0.13 cups/day vs 0.31 cups/day) improved. The changes also led to students consuming a larger portion of their main entrée (from 72.3% to 87.9%).

“Many low-income students rely on school meals for up to half of their daily energy intake,” says lead investigator Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScM, ScD, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health. “Therefore, school meals can have important implications for student health. Increased consumption of healthier foods during the school day may result in the displacement of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that many students are exposed to after leaving school grounds.”

Although investigators found no evidence that the new USDA policies lead to an increase in food waste, they discovered that the guidelines did not impact the existing problem of excessive amounts of school lunch ending up in the trash can. Data revealed that the amount of food discarded both pre- and post-regulation remained consistently high, with students throwing away roughly 60%-75% of the vegetables and 40% of the fruits they were served.

“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,” explains Dr. Cohen. “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.”

While there is no doubt that steps should be taken to lower the amount of overall food waste in schools, the new standards from the USDA appear to be a step in the right direction by helping students to consume more fruits and vegetables without leading to an increase in the amount of food thrown away.

Still, there is political pressure on the USDA to relax the guidelines due to food waste concerns. “Overall, the new requirements have led to improvements in student diets and have not resulted in increased food waste,” adds Dr. Cohen. “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.”