Despite some negative press surrounding the new nutrition standards in school meal programs, many schools have seen a positive impact on plate waste and student consumption of healthful foods. Many changes to school meals were implemented in 2012 following the passage of 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. This legislation aimed to improve the health of children by offering more nutritious meals. These changes included increasing offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains along with decreasing sodium, saturated fat and trans fat. Additionally specific calorie ranges were created to meet the energy needs of children in different age groups. Research studies have shown these policy change have had a positive impact in school districts across the country.
A study conducted by Dr. Shwartz of the University of Connecticut, collected data from 12 middle schools in an urban low-income district prior to and after the policy changes. The results showed an overall increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. Selection of fruit increased from 54% to 66%, with 74% of students consuming the fruit. Selection of fruit by the students increased 9% for every additional fruit offered. Although selection of a vegetable decreased from 68% to 52%, the overall consumption of vegetables increased by 20%. Consumption of main entrees increased from 71% to 84% and overall, there was a decrease in vegetable and entree waste. These results indicate a positive response to the policy changes.
Similar results were found in a smaller study, consisting of four schools in an urban, low-income school district in Massachusetts. Following the policy changes, students selected fruit more often (23%), compared to before the nutrition policy changes. However, no changes were found in the selection of entrees or vegetables. Results showed a 16.2% increase in vegetable consumption and 15.6% increase in consumption of entrees. These results are comparable to observations in the above-mentioned study, consumption of vegetables and entrees increased while fruit consumption remained stable.
While some studies have shown positive effects towards school meals, many program operators continue to report challenges. A survey of school meal program operators conducted by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) showed the top three concerns of members included increased food costs, increased food waste, and sodium requirements. The survey included responses from 1,160 SNA members from a total of 49 states. Although operators still face various challenges, there are several resources and strategies that districts can utilize to cut costs and decrease plate waste.
Districts concerned with plate waste may benefit from utilizing Smarter Lunchroom strategies. Using creative names for items was shown to increase selection of vegetables from 40% to 70%. Additional strategies include using signs and increasing the number of locations where fruits and vegetables are offered. Research also shows that students are more likely to buy lunch from a staff member who they perceive as “always smiling” compared to a staff member perceived as “not smiling.” Offer versus serve is another strategy that allows students to choose items they prefer to eat and decline others. This strategy increases available choices, while maintaining nutritional standards and decreasing plate waste. Despite the challenges of implementing the new school nutrition policies, there are several strategies operators can implement to reduce waste and increase consumption of healthful foods. Research supports the implementation of these policies, so children nationwide receive more healthful meals at school.
Mackenzie Comstock and Amanda Mercer, Colorado Department of Education Office of School Nutrition