Studies Show School Lunch Programs Need Improvement

Kids need more fruits, vegetables, and time to eat healthy

Photo Modified: Flickr / Janine / CC BY 4.0

Serving vegetables with nutritious dips would likely make them more appealing to young kids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, less than 15 percent of Americans fulfill the daily-recommended fruit and vegetable intake guidelines. Some states, such as Tennessee, see rates as low as seven and a half percent. In response to these statistics, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented a rule in 2012, requiring all school children to take either a fruit or vegetable at each meal.

Click here for the School Lunches Around the World Slideshow.

Three years later, a study has been released measuring the effectiveness of the new school lunch program. Findings show that although these nutritious foods are making it onto the lunch tray, they may not be destined for kids’ stomachs. Researchers used video cameras to study students at two northeastern elementary schools before and after the fruit and vegetable requirement was imposed. After the rule was enforced, children began taking an average of 0.89 cups from the lunch line compared to 0.69 cups before the requirement. However, actual consumption dropped from 0.51 cups to 0.45 cups, with children throwing out the required foods at a rate 35 percent higher than before.

Another new study suggests that short lunch periods may be contributing to the high incidence of food waste in cafeterias. Compared with children who sat at a lunch table for 25 minutes, those who had 20 to 24 minutes to eat consumed 6.9 percent less of their entrees, about four percent fewer vegetables, and about two percent less milk. With more time, kids would likely consume more lunch and have time to eat the foods they don’t initially go for, which is typically vegetables.  

Despite these initial findings, advocates are confident that efforts to improve the school lunch program have the potential to succeed. Sarah A. Amin, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts, explained, “We’re advocating that the guidelines be supplemented with other efforts.” This could include anything from cutting up produce to make them more manageable for small hands, to serving nutritious dips alongside vegetables.


The accompanying slideshow is provided by fellow Daily Meal special contributor Chinmoylad.