Mandated lunchroom veggies hitting trash in some schools sparks debate

Charlotte Central School Food Service Director and School Nutrition Program Manager Elizabeth Skypeck at Charlotte Central School on Aug. 28. Photo by Lynn Monty
Charlotte Central School Food Service Director and School Nutrition Program Manager Elizabeth Skypeck at Charlotte Central School on Aug. 28. Photo by Lynn Monty

A new school lunch study touts visual proof kids are tossing federally mandated fruits and veggies into trash bins less than a month before congress votes on whether to reauthorize a controversial program requiring healthier school lunches.

The new University of Vermont study, published online in Public Health Reports on Aug. 25, is the first to use digital imaging to capture students’ lunch trays before and after they exited the lunch line. It is also one of the first to compare fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed.

This study found that students put more fruits and vegetables on their trays, as required, but consumed fewer of them and increased waste by approximately 56 percent. “The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption,” said Sarah Amin, Ph.D., a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont and lead author on the study. “The answer was clearly no. It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line.”

Amin and her co-authors documented almost 500 tray observations over 10 visits to two elementary schools in the Northeast before implementation of the USDA guideline and almost twice as many observations afterwards. “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.”

Elizabeth Skypeck, Charlotte Central School Food Service Director and School Nutrition Program Manager, said vegetable and fruit consumption depends on the day. Last Friday, corn on the cob, salad and watermelon were on the menu. She admitted some of that did hit the compost bin.

“There are a lot of factors,” Skypeck said. “Kids don’t want to eat a lot when it’s hot. It’s hot today, and keep in mind these kids only have 22 minutes to eat. Most of them spent the first ten minutes hydrating, drinking water and milk.”

Skypeck said the plate waste study is part of a process of figuring things out. “Now that we have a way to measure the waste, we can find ways to move this forward,” she said. “The headlines are misleading. If you unpack this study, you see it is a science and something we have discovered. It’s a lot more complicated than just coming out and telling everyone the mandated veggies are hitting the trash. Nobody should be discouraged by this. It’s just part of the process.”

Hunger Free Vermont is concerned the two-school study is sending the wrong message. Marissa Parisi, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont, said she heard from state and national school nutrition partners since the study was released who strongly disagree with the findings. “We do not feel the University of Vermont study gives an accurate portrayal of what’s happening in today’s school meal programs,” she said.

Erika Dolan, President of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont and a School Food Service Director in Waterbury/Duxbury, said the new nutrition rules have encouraged Vermont schools to add more variety to school meals, and strengthen school food service staff cooking and customer service skills. “Vermont schools now lead the nation in implementing best practices in school meals,” she said.

The study is an inaccurate representation of the school meals environment and behaviors of students in the lunchroom, Dolan said. There have been many more studies that refute the findings in the UVM study, including a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The Harvard study found that students are taking more fruit, and actually eating more of the vegetables put on their tray, even while the quantity of vegetables on their tray has increased, Dolan said. Overall fruit selection increased by 23 percent and the consumption of the vegetables selected increased by 16.2 percent. While plate waste continues to be a challenge, the new standards did not result in increased food waste, she said.

Anore Horton, Nutrition Initiatives Director at Hunger Free Vermont, said Vermont schools are making the regulations work and increasing school meal participation through a variety of strategies. “While there was some initial increase in plate waste as schools made adjustments to the new rules in the first year, they have since mostly leveled off,” she said.

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