The Obama administration’s efforts to get kids to eat better may have been controversial in some quarters, but they do seem to be working. A new study finds that kids who receive subsidized school lunches are eating more fruits and vegetables than before and throwing away less food, too.
Conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, the research tracked students at 12 middle schools in New Haven before and after the regulations were introduced. The percentage of students choosing fruit rose from 54% to 66%, and students ate more of their main dish, indicating they were more satisfied (84% on average last year, compared to 71% in the spring of 2012).
“I think the changes made a lot of sense and there are a lot of districts, like the one we studied, that have been successful in implementing them,” says Marlene Schwartz, the lead author of the study and the director of the Rudd Center. “I think one of the keys was offering a variety of fruits and vegetables. That makes it more likely that students will take them.”
In the study, each extra fruit choice increased selection by 9%.
The regulations, which require students to pick out at least one serving of fruit or vegetables, have been criticized as costly and paternalistic. Conservatives claimed they would lead to more waste, as kids would pick things out but not eat them. Republicans in Congress have tried to defund the program, which is managed by the Department of Agriculture.
Schwartz says the fears are unjustified, at least based on her study and another from researchers at Harvard. “I find it frustrating as a researcher to hear people insist on something without ever measuring it. That’s why we do science, because humans are not great at accurately perceiving certain things,” she says.
“There’s an exaggeration of the strictness of these regulations that’s more political than anything else,” she adds. “The fact that eating fruits and vegetables has become a political issue is pretty sad, because it’s something that every health professional in the country can agree on.”
Having said that, the Rudd research only looked at 12 schools and it’s unlikely that all districts have been so happy working with the new guidelines. Schwartz says more could be done to help food service directors on implementation, including offering more money, training, and recipes that kids will like.