New USDA School Meal Standards Positively Impact Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Low-Income Students

Concern from lawmakers and the public regarding possible food waste unfounded, according to new data published In the American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Ann Arbor, MI, March 4, 2014

With nearly 32 million American students receiving government-subsidized meals every day, getting children the nutrition they need is a priority for schools as well as legislators. In the fall of 2012, revamped school lunch guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) went into effect. New standards necessitate increased availability of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, require students to select either a fruit or vegetable as one of their lunch items, and mandate larger portion sizes for fruits and vegetables.

Initially, the guidelines were maligned by food service directors, teachers, parents, and students who claimed that forcing larger portion sizes and requiring students to select a fruit or vegetable they may not want to eat would lead to an increase in food waste. While mostly anecdotal, these concerns were potentially problematic if true. To find out, researchers looked at cafeteria food waste from four low-income urban schools in Massachusetts, both before and after the new USDA standards went into effect. Their findings are published in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Investigators found that the new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste, and that percentages of food discarded remained roughly the same both pre- and post-implementation of the new regulations. Investigators did discover that the new guidelines have resulted in increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, along with students eating more of their main entrée.

After the new regulations went into effect, the percentage of students selecting a fruit increased significantly (from 52.7% to 75.7%), but there was no corresponding rise in food waste, meaning that there was a substantial increase in the number of students consuming fruits. For children who selected a vegetable, both the percentage consumed (24.9% pre-implementation vs 41.1% post-implementation) and cups per day consumed (0.13 cups/day vs 0.31 cups/day) improved. The changes also led to students consuming a larger portion of their main entrée (from 72.3% to 87.9%).

“Many low-income students rely on school meals for up to half of their daily energy intake,” says lead investigator Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScM, ScD, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health. “Therefore, school meals can have important implications for student health. Increased consumption of healthier foods during the school day may result in the displacement of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that many students are exposed to after leaving school grounds.”

Although investigators found no evidence that the new USDA policies lead to an increase in food waste, they discovered that the guidelines did not impact the existing problem of excessive amounts of school lunch ending up in the trash can. Data revealed that the amount of food discarded both pre- and post-regulation remained consistently high, with students throwing away roughly 60%-75% of the vegetables and 40% of the fruits they were served.

“While the new standards make important changes by requiring reimbursable school meals to have increased quantities of fruits and vegetables and more vegetable variety, this may not be sufficient,” explains Dr. Cohen. “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.”

While there is no doubt that steps should be taken to lower the amount of overall food waste in schools, the new standards from the USDA appear to be a step in the right direction by helping students to consume more fruits and vegetables without leading to an increase in the amount of food thrown away.

Still, there is political pressure on the USDA to relax the guidelines due to food waste concerns. “Overall, the new requirements have led to improvements in student diets and have not resulted in increased food waste,” adds Dr. Cohen. “Lawmakers should not consider further weakening the school meal standards. The new school meal standards are the strongest implemented by the USDA to date, and the improved dietary intakes will likely have important health implications for children.”

# # #

Notes for editors
“Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste,” by Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScM, ScD, Scott Richardson, MBA, Ellen Parker, MBA, MSW, Paul J. Catalano, ScD, Eric B. Rimm, ScD, is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 46, Issue 4 (April 2014), 388-94, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2013.11.013, published by Elsevier.

Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Angela J. Beck at +1 734 764 8775 orajpmmedia@elsevier.com. Journalists wishing to interview the authors should contact Juliana Cohen at +1 978 604 5896 or Jcohen@hsph.harvard.edu.

About the American Journal of Preventive Medicine
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (www.ajpmonline.org) is the official journal of The American College of Preventive Medicine (www.acpm.org) and the Association for Prevention Teaching and Research (http://www.aptrweb.org/). It publishes articles in the areas of prevention research, teaching, practice and policy. Original research is published on interventions aimed at the prevention of chronic and acute disease and the promotion of individual and community health. The journal features papers that address the primary and secondary prevention of important clinical, behavioral and public health issues such as injury and violence, infectious disease, women's health, smoking, sedentary behaviors and physical activity, nutrition, diabetes, obesity, and alcohol and drug abuse. Papers also address educational initiatives aimed at improving the ability of health professionals to provide effective clinical prevention and public health services. The journal also publishes official policy statements from the two co-sponsoring organizations, health services research pertinent to prevention and public health, review articles, media reviews, and editorials.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, with an Impact Factor of 3.945, is ranked 15th out of 158 Public, Environmental, and Occupational Health titles and 18th out of 151 General & Internal Medicine titles according to the 2012 Journal Citation Reports® published by Thomson Reuters.

About Elsevier

Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals, empowering them to make better decisions, deliver better care, and sometimes make groundbreaking discoveries that advance the boundaries of knowledge and human progress. Elsevier provides web-based, digital solutions — among them ScienceDirect, Scopus, Elsevier Research Intelligence, and ClinicalKey — and publishes nearly 2,200 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and over 25,000 book titles, including a number of iconic reference works.

The company is part of Reed Elsevier Group PLC, a world leading provider of professional information solutions in the Science, Medical, Legal and Risk and Business sectors, which is jointly owned by Reed Elsevier PLC and Reed Elsevier NV. The ticker symbols are REN (Euronext Amsterdam), REL (London Stock Exchange), RUK and ENL (New York Stock Exchange).

Media contact
Angela J. Beck, PhD, MPH
Managing Editor
+1 734 764 8775
ajpmmedia@elsevier.com