Fun fact: Congress passed the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 1946, after a federal investigation concluded many young men had failed to pass draft requirements as a result of childhood malnutrition. Serving meals in schools was a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”
School lunches have since become much more than a wartime bolster. In recent decades, they’ve become a life raft for kids hovering around the poverty line. Yet many schools have continued to cook to 1940s-era health standards, despite the current obesity epidemic and the fact that many children, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, are less exposed to fresh home-cooked meals (which are associated with higher intake of fruits and vegetables) than in decades past. When the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act overhauled the NSLP, changes were long overdue.
“This was the first time that meals had had calorie maximums, or that kids were required to take either a fruit and vegetable as part of their lunch,” says Sarah Amin, who just completed her PhD in nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont.
From a nutritional standpoint, the new standards are great—think roasted sweet potatoes in lieu of tater tots. But it might not come as a surprise that kids haven’t quite taken a liking to them. Amin is the lead author of a new study in Public Health Reports that shows how fruit and vegetable waste has increased significantly since the passage of the new act.
Amin and a group of colleagues conducted a study of fruit and vegetable waste at two public elementary schools in Vermont, before and after the nutrition standards went into effect in 2012. Using digital imaging, Amin found that children did select more fruits and vegetables after the requirement was passed. That wasn’t surprising, since they were required to. Likewise, because children no longer had the option of declining fruits and vegetables, consumption decreased, though only by about a tablespoon per tray.
More concerning was how much fruit and vegetable waste increased: from about a quarter of a cup to a third of a cup per tray. That corroborates existing anecdotal evidence from school administrators that kids aren’t eating fruits and veggies proportional to the amount they’re required to take.
But Amin stresses that it’s only been a few years since the requirements went into place. It takes time for students to adjust. Meanwhile, schools can think critically about how they’re serving fruits and vegetables, she says; prior research has shown that sliced veggies served with dip can encourage kids to eat more greens. School cooks can also dream up healthier ways of preparing foods kids already like, such as pizza. Increasing exposure to healthy snacks, through farm-to-school programs or on-campus gardens, is another important component to better eating.
“We know that exposure leads to preference,” says Amin, adding an anecdote about a parent whose kid rebuffed cauliflower time after time, only to be enjoy it by the 31st attempt. “The point is: Don’t be discouraged.”
There’s also evidence that young kids, who’ve never known a less-healthy standard of eating in their school cafeteria, are more likely than older ones to eat their fruits and veggies, Amin says. That’s good news for the future of children’s health.
“Schools might be seeing some waste initially, but they can’t give up hope,” she says. “This is short-term pain for long-term gain.”
And it’s important for Congress to remember as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act comes up for reauthorization in September. Tossed-out green beans and apples might be disheartening, but they don’t mean schools should return to a World War II-era lunch program.