New Federal School Lunch Standards are Working, Study Says

The school meal standards implemented in 2012 have significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption amongst students.

lunch station

Lunch station image via shutterstock

Approximately 32 million students eat school meals every day, and for many low-income students, up to half their daily energy intake is from school meals, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. New standards for these meals were implemented in July 2012 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the goal of improving the nutritional quality. The meals are now required to have calorie minimums and maximums per meal based on the child’s age (for kindergarteners to fifth-graders, 550 to 650 calories; for 9th- to 12th-graders, 450 to 600 calories) and increase the availability of fruits and vegetables, among other changes. 

There was a lot of backlash over the standards, with the New York Times even running a headline that read, “Healthier School Lunches Face Student Rejection.” Oh, no! The horror! More vegetables! Well, looks like the jokes on you, children. You’re getting healthier and you don’t even realize it.

According to a new study by the HSPH, the improved standards has led to increased fruit and vegetable consumption by students. The study, which is the first to examine school food consumption both before and after the standards went into effect, contradicts criticisms that the new standards have increased food waste, according to HSPH.

“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 the study’s lead author Juliana Cohen, a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.

How the study worked:

The researchers collected plate waste data (that sounds appetizing) from 1,030 students in four schools in an urban, low-income school district both before (fall 2011) and after (fall 2012) when the new standards went into effect. According to the study, after the implementation of the new standards, fruit selection increased by 23 percent, but entrée and vegetable selection remained unchanged. The consumption of vegetables increased by 16.2 percent, yet fruit consumption was unchanged. In addition, the study notes, because more students selected fruit, overall, more fruit was consumed post-implementation.

One thing the study seems to be missing, however, is whether or not sugar and/or junk food intake decreased due to higher vegetable consumption. It could be possible that eating more vegetables made the students feel fuller and therefore led to a decreased intake of empty calories. Here’s hoping.

When it comes to food waste, the study says:

Importantly, the new standards did not result in increased food waste, contradicting anecdotal 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. However, high levels of fruit and vegetable waste continued to be a problem—students discarded roughly 60 percent to 75 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruits on their trays. The authors say that schools must focus on improving food quality and palatability to reduce waste.

“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,” the researchers wrote in the study.