School Kids Are Eating More Fruits and Veggies, But Some People Aren’t Thrilled

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 Lets 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?

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V11 months ago

thanks for the article.

holly masih
.3 years ago

They may need to get use to the new way of eating.

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg K3 years ago

Thank you

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago


john casablanca
john c3 years ago

Appears to me that Senator Pat Roberts and his so called constituents are complaining about
the so called waste, not because of the waste, but rather I would guess to say that his so
called constituents in all probability are major suppliers and wholesalers of junk food. Pizza
and hamburgers are not the way to go, especially considering that approximately 32 million low income children receive up to 50% of their daily energy intake from these meals. The schools or the school districts set the menus for these meals and I'm certain they can be more creative and appetizing with a little ingenuity, even considering the schools have limited
John C./Houston, Tx.

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

And parents' involvement?

Angela J.
Angela J3 years ago

Thank you.

Natasha Salgado
natasha s3 years ago

Schools need to be serving more fruits veggies--not the typical artery clogging Spam other unsavoury foods. Also the pop machines need to go.

Deborah M.
Deborah M3 years ago

So many foods are picked before ripe and they have very little taste at all. The school gardening concept is great. Learn to work for your food and develop a life long hobby.

Tom Sullivan
Tom C Sullivan3 years ago

I know people who are teachers and they are seeing positive results, it is about time they serve healthy foods.