In 2012, the US Department of Agriculture updated the guidelines on school lunches, recommending that schools should offer healthier meals to students. New research from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, suggests that these guidelines have increased fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income students.

The study, recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is the first to assess how the new recommendations have impacted the diets of students.

According to the research team, led by Juliana Cohen of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, approximately 32 million US students eat school meals every day. They note that for many low-income students, school lunches account for up to 50% of their daily energy intake.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) set out new guidelines for school lunches in the fall of 2012, with the aim of improving their nutritional quality.

These guidelines stated that schools should:

  • Increase their offering of whole grain-rich foods
  • Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties to students
  • Ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
  • Increase focus on reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat and sodium in foods, and
  • Limit calories based on the age of children being served to ensure the correct portion size is given.

The investigators analyzed the food waste of 1,030 students from four low-income urban schools in Massachusetts both before and after the new USDA guidelines came into effect.

Results of the analysis revealed that after the new guidelines were introduced, fruit selection increased by almost 23%, from 52.7% to 75.7%. As there was no corresponding increase in food waste, this suggested that students are eating their fruit rather than throwing it away.

Furthermore, the investigators found there was an increase in vegetable consumption, from 24.9% before the new guidelines to 41.1% after.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Cohen says:

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.”

The researchers found no increase in food waste after the new standards were applied, compared with food waste levels beforehand. This challenges previous reports stating that the recommendations would have the opposite impact.

However, the researchers point out that there were still large amounts of food ending up in the trash. Both before and after the new guidelines, approximately 60-75% of vegetables and 40% of fruits were thrown away after they were served.

Dr. Cohen says that although schools are required to offer more fruit and vegetables under the new recommendations, this alone may not be enough to improve overall standards.

“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,” she adds.

Last year, Medical News Today reported on the USDA’s “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards, which requires that schools offer healthier snack options in their cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars.