Study finds elementary students like new healthier lunches

July 23, 2014, The Wall Street Journal

By Caroline Porter and Stephanie Armour

A new study reveals that the healthier school lunches despised in 2012 are now found to be agreeable among students and staffers.

When the federal government implemented new school meal regulations in 2012, a majority of elementary school students complained about the healthier lunches, but by the end of the school year most found the food agreeable, according to survey results released July 21.

The peer-reviewed study comes amid concerns that the regulations led schools to throw away more uneaten food and prompted some students to drop out of meal programs.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed administrators at more than 500 primary schools about student reaction to the new meals in the 2012-2013 school year. They found that 70 percent agreed or strongly agreed that students, by the end of the school year, generally liked the new lunches, which feature more whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and lower fat levels.

“We feel like these data support the new meals and show that although change can be slow, there have not been as many student complaints as thought to be,” said Lindsey Turner, the lead author of the study, which will be published in the journal Childhood Obesity. The research was supported by a national group called Bridging the Gap that studies policies that improve health and was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which backs public-health initiatives.

In another study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this past spring, researchers found that students were eating more fruits and vegetables under the new guidelines.

The school-meal standards have been contentious. Some Republicans criticized their calorie limits—the first time the government had imposed such a mandate on school meals—and in 2012 introduced legislation in the House to repeal the requirements. The standards also spurred student-led lunch boycotts in some districts.

Participation in the school-meal program has declined in recent years, fueling questions about the regulations’ impact.

“Our big concern is that participation continues to slide,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school-nutritional professionals. The group seeks a relaxation of the rules, and says it believes they play a role in the decline in students participating.

Nationwide, participation in the school-lunch program fell by 1.2 million students, or 3.7 percent, from the 2010-2011 school year through the 2012-2013 year after having steadily increased for many years, according to a Feb. 27 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. State and local officials reported the drop was due in part to the new standards.

The study released July 21 shows that schools in which two-thirds or more of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch had higher participation and left less food on their plates than schools with fewer students qualified for the meals. In addition, administrators at rural schools reported more student complaints and wasted food, as well as participation drops, as compared with urban or suburban schools, according to the report.

The rules cover the roughly 32 million children who eat school breakfasts, lunches and snacks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says the program cost $15.2 billion in the 2013-2014 school year.

The requirement for healthier school food was a signature push of first lady Michelle Obama. The standards are aimed at reducing childhood obesity and were released in January 2012. Ms. Obama earlier this month vowed to fight GOP efforts to weaken the rules. House Republicans and the School Nutrition Association are seeking to relax some of the requirements in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

House Republicans are calling for some schools facing financial challenges to get a temporary waiver from the rules. They say the standards have been money losers for some districts. Democrats say the schools simply need more time and that many have made a successful transition.

“It takes students a little bit to adjust,” said Jessica Donze Black, a child nutrition expert for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit that promotes healthy school meals. “A majority of schools are doing well, and we should be able to learn from those schools and move forward with the schools that are still struggling.”

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