Changes to the National School Lunch Program that mean healthier options for students seem to be paying off, a new report says. According to the study, published in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine, new guidelines have positively affected school meal selection and consumption.
Researchers wanted to know how much food was being wasted, and whether students were actually eating the healthier options.
Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, public schools participating in the national program were required to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, offer a greater variety of vegetables and reduce sodium. Some parents complained that students weren't satisfied and that a significant amount of food was being wasted.
Researchers looked at the lunch trays of 1,030 elementary and middle school children in four schools in an urban, low-income school district and found that fruit selection increased by 23 percent and that entree consumption increased by 15.6 percent, vegetable consumption increased by 16.2 percent and fruit consumption remained the same. Food waste levels were the same as prior implementation of the new guidelines.
"Many low-income students rely on school meals for up to half of their daily energy intake," said lead investigator Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScM, ScD, Department of Nutition, 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."
While researchers found there is not an increase in waste, the amount of food that ends up in the trash in schools is significant. Data shows that students throw away about 60-75 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruits they were served.