School lunch and the vegetable strategy

Offer fruit and vegetables on the school lunch menu and kids will be inspired to try them, like them and maybe even start eating them on a regular basis – or so the theory goes.

But a new study has found this isn’t necessarily the case. Although bringing raspberries, asparagus, sweet potatoes and the like into the school cafeteria did seem to have an impact, the effect wasn’t particularly strong, researchers learned after scrutinizing the food choices of more than 26,000 children.

The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It’s one of the first times researchers have attempted to quantify whether school-based programs actually make a difference in how many fruits and vegetables children consume each day.

A bit of background about the study: It analyzed nearly two dozen previous studies involving a total of 26,400 children ages 5 to 12 in several countries, including the U.S., Britain and Australia. The researchers looked at two different kinds of food programs: those in which kids received free or subsidized produce, and those that included elements such as family and nutrition education and communicating with parents. They then compared them with school lunch programs that didn’t do anything specific to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption.

The results were interesting or dismal, depending on your point of view.

On average, children in school-based food programs ate about one-fourth of a portion more of produce. The effect was especially low for vegetables – only a tenth of a portion more, or the equivalent of half a spear of asparagus.

Notably, this wasn’t confined to school lunch programs in the U.S.; the researchers found similar results in Europe and Australia.

Counting juice as a fruit raised the average consumption a little higher but not by much.

It’s hard to gauge whether such small increases have an overall benefit on children’s nutrition. Perhaps it did help in some subtle, long-term way. Tracking whether these same kids also ate slightly more fruits and vegetables at home and whether they continued these habits into adulthood was outside the scope of the studies selected for the analysis, but even slight changes could have added up over time.

The researchers dug up some especially interesting conclusions regarding the strategies used by schools to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption.

It seemed to make a difference when schools included more education about nutrition and when they communicated more with families about nutrition. School garden programs also seemed to help.

There’s been a fair amount of study on what schools can do to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Should they restrict access to chips, soda and other less desirable foods in the hope that the slack will be picked up with fruits and vegetables? If kids are given more fruit and vegetable options, will they be more likely to try at least one of them? Does it work to offer rewards when kids choose fruits and vegetables in the school lunch line? What about marketing fruits and vegetables to make them cool and fun?

The evidence suggests that most of these strategies may help in some way, albeit moderately. But school lunch programs are only one component in a food environment that also extends to how children eat at home and what they see and experience in the community around them.

On the basis of the Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, it would be easy to conclude that school-based interventions are, at best, only mildly successful and perhaps not worth the effort. There’s another way of looking at it, though: In order to positively influence children’s eating behavior, there may not be the blockbuster solution that many are looking for. It more than likely will take multiple strategies on many fronts – each of them small but adding up to a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

2 thoughts on “School lunch and the vegetable strategy

  1. I have to agree with your ideas in the last paragraph. While on the surface I agree with the initiative of trying to get kids to eat more healthy options, I also know for a fact that it goes contrary to what they are receiving at home. I know of a lot of people whose kids’ diets are restricted to such items as mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and lots of fast (fat) food so that’s what the kids are accustomed to; and therefore, the “limited success” of this program that you cite. Some parents don’t even try to add variety and “healthful” options, they just capitulate and allow their kids to feast on chips and other “junk food” as they want. Which, for sure, is sad.

  2. Im sorry but I think schools have gone over board. I think having options is good but they have change the pizza, spaghetti extra into wheat products. Guess what my kids just wont eat. Its not from the lack of me trying to get them to eat more wheat foods. It just doesnt taste as good to them They dont like it they are not going to eat it. Hence my kids go hungry through school and into there after school activies. Than you wonder why they dont feel good in school.. Because they havent eaten anything. Thats why. Besideds, I ate whatever was at lunch when I was a child. I can tell you I wanst over weight. Why punish everyone because some children are over weight?

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