Who would have thought school lunch—a fixture of America’s education system since before World War II—would become such a battleground. In the 17 months since sweeping reforms went into effect, we've seen Republicans point to the nutrition standards as the latest example of government overreach, a student-made parody video claiming the new lunches leave them hungry, and even a permanent relaxing of limits on grains and meats by the Department of Agriculture in response to cries of student hunger. Fox News anchors call the changes set forth in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 “school lunch restrictions,” as if feeding students healthier meals is somehow a violation of their civil liberties.
Lawmakers and students may have a legitimate critique in saying that the new standards provide too few calories or grains, but there’s one area they’ll have difficulty contesting: whether the lunch reforms have resulted in children eating more fruits and vegetables in school. According to an institution no less than Harvard University, they are. A new study calls the standards “the strongest implemented by the USDA to date” and finds that they're working quite well.
A team of researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health and the antihunger organization Project Bread studied students’ “plate waste”—the food they throw away—before and after the changes went into effect in four low-income, urban schools in fall 2011 and 2012. The team concluded that the nutrition reforms had resulted in a 23 percent increase in fruit selection (and judging by the plate waste, consumption) and a 16.2 percent increase in vegetable consumption.
“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, in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, which serves as a congressional watchdog, reported in February that the implementation of the 2010 reforms has been met with numerous challenges. The GAO studied eight school districts and reported a decrease of 1.2 million students paying full price for lunch from 2010–2011 to 2012–2013. Researchers cited the smaller entrée sizes and increase in fruits and vegetables as factors contributing to the drop. Still, the GAO is a proponent of changing school lunch standards in general: In 2003, it stridently called on the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education to make sweeping reforms to the program.
In the new report, food service directors in some districts said they saw fruits and vegetables being thrown out, though the Harvard–Project Bread study did not find an increase in food waste following the implementation of the new nutrition standards. On the contrary, students are eating more fruits and vegetables now than they were two years ago, the Harvard study found.
“What this indicates is that, broadly stated, kids will eat vegetables,” says Scott Richardson, director of research, strategic initiatives, and development at Project Bread and one of the study’s coauthors. “If you take the time and put the effort to make it look good and educate them on what you’re serving them, we expect even higher consumption rates.”
Project Bread is testing the premise in Massachusetts, where its Chefs in Schools program trains cafeteria workers in preparing healthy dishes that look great on the tray, meet the new USDA guidelines, and most important, entice students to eat.
The organization is working on two additional tools Richardson says those interested in improving school lunches should look out for: a study measuring the impact on healthy student eating of having a chef in a school and a tool for schools to measure the amount of food waste their students are creating. Tracking what's thrown away will “allow them to measure the impact of menu changes and have real-time feedback on the palatability of their offerings,” he says.
Critics of the school lunch changes have claimed that students are not eating the new meals, driven by restrictions on grain and meat/meat alternatives servings to toss their lunches or bring their own. Sure enough, the federal government listened. While the calorie counts implemented in 2010 remained steady, in January the USDA relaxed the caps on grains and meats, citing its commitment to “provide needed stability for long-term planning” for food service directors.
Richardson says he hopes the conversation about school meals—punctuated by ignorance of the facts and even a call for low-income students to work for their food—will move in the direction of universal support for maximum investment in a program that feeds food-insecure children. Last week First Lady Michelle Obama solidified her commitment to such an approach, announcing free school meals for all students at more than 22,000 schools across the United States. Rather than weakening the school meal program, Richardson says, lawmakers ought to follow the first lady’s lead in working to strengthen it.
“Good nutrition in support of academic achievement is not an entitlement,” he says. “It’s a right.”