Research indicates that students throw away less food since new, healthier lunch rules were put in place

One of the most consistent complaints about the healthier school-lunch standards is that more food ends up in the garbage can, but a three-year study at urban middle schools says the opposite is true.

“Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias,” says the report of the study, conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut and published in Childhood Obesity. It found that since the new standards have been in place, students have “consumed more fruit, threw away less of the entrees and vegetables and consumed the same amount of milk.”

The researchers tracked students at 12 urban, low-income middle schools in an unidentified “urban school district” for three years, from spring 2012 to spring 2014. They analyzed students’ food selection and consumption by photographing and weighing students’ lunch trays.

The 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, which requires schools to reduce salt and fat; use more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and limit calories by age, was implemented in fall 2012.

The standards were put into place as an effort to combat child obesity. Kentucky is the first in the nation for high-school obesity, eighth in obesity of children 10-17, and sixth among 1-to 4-year-olds from low-income families, according to the “States of Obesity” report.

The study found that students ate more of their lunch entrees after the new standards went into effect, with 84 percent of students eating an entree in 2014, compared to 71 percent in 2012.

“Despite concerns that students
do not like the new entrees that meet the whole grain and
meat/meat alternate regulations, our data show that more
students are selecting the entree and they are wasting significantly
less because consumption is up to 84 percent,” says the report.

It also found the share of students choosing vegetables dropped to 52 percent from 68 percent, but the students who chose vegetables ate nearly 20 percent more of them, “effectively lowering vegetable waste,” says the report. The percentage of students choosing fruit “significantly increased” to 66 percent from 54 percent, with 74 percent of all students eating fruit.

Marlene Schwartz, the study’s lead author and director of the Rudd Center, told Politico’s Morning Agriculture that she expects the findings to be attacked, but said they are supported by solid data.

“I know that food directors have a really difficult job,” she told Morning Agriculture.“It’s hard to please all of the children all of the time, while keeping a tight budget … But I think [the shift to new standards] is the right thing to do.”

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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