Children are throwing away more healthy fruit and veggies than ever


School girl carrying healthy lunch on tray

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Kids will be kids. Sometimes the easiest way to stop them doing something is to order them to do it. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed. The act freed up government funds to make sure children in school got a regular supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Now, less than a month before Congress votes on whether to reauthorize the program, a new study suggests many students are putting the fruits and vegetables straight into the trash.


Talking loud and clear

The study — published online in Public Health Reports — is one of the first to compare fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the legislation was introduced and shows that young people are consuming less of the healthy food than they did before the law took effect. By using digital imaging to capture students' lunch trays before and after they exited the lunch line, it was discovered that students put more fruits and vegetables on their trays, as was hoped, but ended up consuming fewer of them — so increasing waste by approximately 35 percent.

"The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption," says Dr. Sarah Amin, lead author of the study and researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont.  "The answer was clearly no," she said. "It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line." Of those students they looked at, around 40 to 60 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch, a marker for low socioeconomic status.


Motion and heart

Before the signing of the bill (and the introduction of the resulting USDA guidelines in 2012), Amin's team recorded data from two elementary schools in the north-east amounting to almost 500 tray observations. After the mandate, they returned and counted almost 1,000 trays using visual estimations and calculations based on digital photographs of trays as students reached the cashier and again after they passed the food disposal area. This method, they say, is faster and more accurate than traditional techniques in which food waste is weighed.

"The beauty of this method is that you have the data to store and code to indicate what was selected, what was consumed, and what was wasted as opposed to weighed plate waste, where everything needs to be done on site," said Amin, who hopes to develop an online training tutorial that could be used by schools across the country to measure consumption and waste.


Junk culture

As we pointed out in 2012, the actions of lobbyists meant that fries would still be served and pizza (the tomato content, at least) counted as a vegetable. In addition, an earlier study conducted by Amin and her colleagues looked at the types of fruits and vegetables children were choosing prior to the new guideline and found — perhaps unsurprisingly — that, generally speaking, they had a preference for processed fruits and vegetables such as 100 percent fruit juice rather than the fruit itself or the tomato paste on pizza. In their study, Amin and her colleagues suggest some additional ways to increase fruit and vegetable intake in school:

  • Cutting up vegetables and serving them with dip or mixing them in with other parts of the meal;
  • Slicing fruits like oranges or apples, rather than serving them whole;
  • Adopting promising strategies targeting school settings such as Farm-to-School programs and school gardens, which can encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in addition to what the cafeteria is providing
  • Putting public health programs in place that encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in the home, which could carry over to school.

Amin believes that, though disappointing, the figures will pick up once the act has been in operation a few years. Consumption will increase, she says, once schools and students have fully adjusted to the guidelines — especially for those who entered as kindergarteners after the new guidelines in 2012 and know no other way. "An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption, says Amin. "We can't give up hope yet."


The beginning and the end

The problems inherent in creating a large number of quick, easy and appealing meals every day are compounded by the constant whisper-in-the-ear kids are subject to from the junk food industry. Despite promises of self-regulation, studies have shown little to no let up in the soft sell of unhealthy goodies to children. As we never tire of saying, healthy eating starts at home. It might well be tough to get kids to ditch the deep fried and the sugar-coated so making sure they learn as early as possible just how tasty fresh fruit and vegetables can be is all important.

Setting a good example by keeping things healthy at home will pay off for all the family — you'll avoid health problems, prevent waste, cut costs and ultimately help keep the peace. If they're not happy with the food served in the cafeteria, find out what they do like and show them how to prepare a lunch at home. Check out 15 healthy, kid-friendly lunch ideas or our bento-style recipes. Once you've shown them just how good healthy food can taste, you can rest assured you'll have taught them one of the most important lessons they'll learn at school.