The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the healthy school lunch program is in trouble. Before/after photos of what students ate.

Before/after photos of a student's lunch tray. The first photo was taken when the student left the lunchline and the second after she had eaten, right before everything went into the trash. Notice the green beans are practically uneaten. (Photo courtesy Sarah Amin)

In the war to get America's children to eat healthier, things are not going well.

Student E114 is a case in point. E114 -- the identification code she was assigned by researchers studying eating habits at her public elementary school somewhere in the Northeast -- left the lunch line one day carrying a tray full of what looked like a balanced meal: chicken nuggets, some sort of mushy starch, green beans and milk.

Exactly 13 minutes later she was done. The chicken nuggets and the starch were gone. But the green beans? Still there in a neat pile and headed straight for the trash.

In a study published Tuesday in Public Health Reports, researcher Sarah Amin reports that such waste has become heartbreakingly common since the Agriculture Department rolled out new requirements in the 2012 school year that mandated that children who were taking part in the federal lunch program choose either a fruit or vegetable with their meals.

The USDA mandate -- championed by first lady Michelle Obama -- has been highly controversial. Some school officials had warned that picky eaters would just throw the additional food away, but proponents said they should give kids more credit and that they would make the right choice with some nudging.

"The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption. The answer was clearly no," Amin, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

There has been some research over the years to estimate the amount of consumption of produce and the amount of new waste created, but Amin's study is perhaps the first to try to detail exactly what is happening on the ground.

The design of the experiment was simple. In the spring of 2012, before the USDA mandate went into effect, researchers visited two elementary schools and assigned each third-, fourth- and fifth-grader a number and took digital pictures of their trays before and after they ate and then went back and tried to quantify what was eaten and what was thrown away. Then they repeated the experiment the following school year which was the first year of the new requirement.

What they found was worrisome on several fronts. Because they were forced to do it, children took fruits and vegetables -- 29 percent more in fact. But their consumption of fruits and vegetables actually went down 13 percent after the mandate took effect and, worse, they were throwing away a distressing 56 percent more than before.

The waste each child (or tray) was producing went from a quarter of a cup to more than a 39 percent of a cup each meal. In many cases, the researchers wrote, "children did not even taste the [fruits and vegetables] they chose at lunch."

While the research was limited to two schools in the Northeast with a high percentage of students on free or reduced meals and therefore may not be generalizeable to other parts of the country, the findings provide an important data point as Congress prepares to vote on whether to reauthorize the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which provides funding and sets policy for the USDA's child nutrition programs.

Despite the negative findings in their study, Amin and her colleagues said they believe the new mandate will eventually get children eating right. They suggested that school cafeteria managers consider other ways of offering fruits and vegetables such as cutting them up and serving them with a dip or slicing apples instead of serving them whole.

"An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption," Amin said. "We can't give up hope yet."

A study published last year by Harvard School of Public Health researchers supports that optimistic view.

While Juliana Cohen, a research fellow in the department of nutrition, and her co-authors found that fruit consumption remained the same per student after the new federal standards were implemented, vegetable consumption per student went up by a strong 16.2 percent.

The group also looked at food waste but used a different methodology from Amin by collecting the leftovers and sorting and weighing them. They found that students discarded roughly 40 percent of fruit on their trays and 60 to 75 percent of vegetables. Those are high numbers, and while the researchers recognized that this is a big problem, they took a positive view of their overall results -- writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that their findings “suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, USDA officials said that the “facts are clear” that children are eating healthier as a result of the updated nutrition standards for school meals. Nationwide, 95 percent of schools are now successfully serving healthier meals.

“We continue to listen carefully and make adjustments as needed,” the USDA said, “but when nine out of 10 Americans believe healthier school meals are the right thing to do and we are seeing signs of reversing the obesity crisis, it’s clear that now isn’t the time to lower the bar on our kids’ health.”

This post has been updated.

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