It’s no secret that childhood obesity in the United States continues to balloon, but perhaps we shouldn’t talk about it much.
In response to these rampant public health concerns, the First Lady’s Let‘s Move! Campaign was initiated to promote child health. As part of this campaign, the USDA were required to update the national school meal standards to reflect the most recent American dietary guidelines (even though for adults they may be a bit hard to swallow).
2012 saw the new USDA Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program implemented. It was designed to improve the nutritional quality of school meals by making whole grains, fruits and vegetables more available; requiring the selection of a fruit or vegetable; increasing the portion sizes of fruits and vegetables; limiting total calories and sodium levels; and removing all trans fats.
But did any of these changes even work?
Calls to remove new menu standards
There are about 32 million students eating government subsidized school meals every day. For many low-income students, up to half their daily energy intake is from these school meals. Hence the reason nutrition at schools is crucial, and why the old nutrition standards for schools–based on the 1995 dietary guidelines—were no longer appropriate. Under the old standards, generally meals could be high in sodium and saturated fats, and low in grains and fiber.
Despite these facts, some organizations and lawmakers were pushing to have the new federal standards weakened. The first formal complaint came from Senator Pat Roberts, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. He wrote to the USDA following “considerable public outcry over the implementation of the new nutrition guidelines.” Roberts claimed his constituents and others were concerned about excessive plate waste, as well as whether the new meals would have enough calories and protein to satisfy students.
Since this first letter, there have been numerous reports from food service directors, teachers, parents, and students that the regulations were causing an increase in waste due to both larger portion sizes and the requirement that students select a fruit or vegetable. None of these claims could be proven, however, and were somewhat anecdotal.
Harvard study investigates new nutrition standards
To discover whether the new USDA standards have been effective, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) collected plate waste data from 1,030 students across four schools in an urban, low-income school district, both before and after the new standards went into effect. Results are published in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Researchers discovered that after the new standards were put into place, fruit selection increased by 23.0 percent, whilst consumption of vegetables increased by 16.2 percent. The changes also resulted in students consuming more of their main entrée (from 72.3 percent to 87.9 percent).
“There is a push from some organizations and lawmakers to weaken the new standards. We hope the findings, which show that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables, will discourage those efforts,” said lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.
Food waste is not increasing
Food waste is certainly a valid concern that we should be working to minimize given that it has increased by 50 percent from 1974 to 2006. As such many are worried the new standards have ultimately increased cafeteria food waste. The study, however, found no evidence the new policies had any impact.
Unfortunately, existing fruit and vegetable waste continues to be a problem, with data revealing students continue to discard roughly 60 – 75 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruits on their trays.
Even though fruit and vegetable consumption has increased through better availability and variety, it can be further improved with better quality and presentation.
Dr. Cohen explains, “Schools must also focus on the quality and palatability of the fruits and vegetables offered and on creative methods to engage students to taste and participate in selection of menu items to decrease overall waste levels.”
Whilst there is plenty of room for improvement, students are consuming more fruit and vegetables without any food waste increase. The USDA’s new menu standards appear to be a big tick for public health.
Do you think the new menu standards are working? Is this the correct direction to go for public health?
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