Pictures of school lunch trays belonging to students at two elementary schools in the Northeast provide evidence supporting what some legislators, school officials and parents have said for several years now – more fruits and vegetables go uneaten due to new requirements under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
The photos – which captured students' lunch trays before and after they exited the lunch line – are part of a digital imaging study completed by University of Vermont researchers to determine how the HHFKA legislation impacts school lunch waste and fruit and vegetable consumption.
The study is published online in the Public Health Reports journal.
"The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption," says Sarah Amin, Ph.D., a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont and lead author on the study.
"The answer was clearly no," she said. "It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line."
Digital imaging data
Amin and her co-authors documented almost 500 tray observations over 10 visits to two elementary schools in the Northeast before implementation of the USDA guideline and almost twice as many observations afterwards.
In the schools studied, 40% to 60% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, a marker for low socioeconomic status.
The new imaging methodology, which involved visual estimations and calculations based on digital photographs of trays as students reached the cashier and again after they passed the food disposal area, was faster and more accurate than conventional methodologies that simply weighed food waste.
"The beauty of this method is that you have the data to store and code to indicate what was selected, what was consumed, and what was wasted as opposed to weighed plate waste, where everything needs to be done on site," said Amin, who hopes to develop an online training tutorial that could be used by schools across the country to measure consumption and waste.
Impacting how foods are served
In an earlier study published in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, Amin and colleagues looked at what types of fruits and vegetables children selected prior to the new guideline.
They found that children preferred processed fruits and vegetables such as the tomato paste on pizza or 100% fruit juice rather than whole varieties.
In addition to making sure those options are available, Amin and her colleagues said some other changes might also improve consumption:
• Cutting up vegetables and serving them with dip or mixing them in with other parts of the meal;
• Slicing fruits like oranges or apples, rather than serving them whole;
• Adopting promising strategies targeting school settings such as Farm-to-School programs and school gardens, which can encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in addition to what the cafeteria is providing
• Putting public health programs in place that encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in the home, which could carry over to school.
Once schools have fully acclimated to the guidelines, Amin thinks consumption will increase, especially for students who entered as kindergarteners under the new guidelines in 2012 and know no other way.
"An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption. We can't give up hope yet."
Considering school lunches
USDA has faced many hurdles in implementing changes to school lunch, from parent and administrator pushback to legislative proposals that would significantly change the program.
Early in 2014, for example, USDA approved permanent flexibilities for schools wishing to serve larger portions of lean protein and whole grains as part of a school lunch, and a few months later agreed to add flexibilities on a requirement regarding whole grains.
Other concerns about the program centered on added costs for school districts, either in preparation or ingredients, and also on food waste.
USDA in March 2014 rolled out a special grant program to help schools deal with plate waste, which uses environmental cues to nudge students toward "smarter" food choices.
Congress already has begun consideration of child nutrition as the lawmakers will consider HHFKA reauthorization later this year.