New federal school lunch guidelines implemented in 2012 have resulted in students eating more fruit and throwing away less of their entrees and vegetables, a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and partners at the Yale School of Public Health has found.
The research, published recently in the journal Childhood Obesity, studied food consumption patterns among middle school students in 12 urban districts both before and after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s healthier school meal standards went into effect.
It found that the percentage of students choosing fruit significantly increased, from 54 percent to 66 percent, and that fruit consumption remained high at 74 percent.
Additionally, the study found that student selection of fruit increased by nine percent for each additional type of fruit offered with the meal. The proportion of students who chose a vegetable, meanwhile, dropped from 68 percent to 52 percent, but students selecting vegetables ate nearly 20 percent more of them, effectively lowering vegetable waste. Entree consumption also increased, from 71 percent to 84 percent, further decreasing food waste.
The menu changes were made to promote healthier diets amongst young people and to curb a growing obesity epidemic in America. For many, obesity begins in childhood and extends into adulthood, resulting in a range of chronic health problems and lost productivity and income potential. It is estimated that more than one third of America’s children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
“Seeing a meaningful increase in students choosing fruit is another step in the right direction. We know the real difference these healthy behaviors can make – in student wellbeing and related academic achievement.Credit to our colleagues in the New Haven Public Schools, and of course to the students themselves for establishing healthy habits,” said Professor Jeannette Ickovics, a study co-author and director of CARE: Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, a research group at the Yale School of Public Health.
The study was led by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Researchers analyzed students’ food selection, consumption, and waste by photographing and weighing individual items on lunch trays. More than 70 percent of the students in the districts studied qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Nearly half of the students (47 percent) are African-American, 38 percent are Hispanic, and 15 percent are White.
The study is among the first to reliably measure student consumption of entrees, fruits, vegetables, and milk during lunch before and after the healthier standards took effect.