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Healthy school lunch standards don’t waste vegetables

When the federal government imposed updated standards for school lunches at the beginning of the 2012 school year, many critics claimed that the new requirement for kids to take at least one vegetable or fruit serving would just be a waste of money leading to more produce winding up in the trash can. But Harvard School of Public Health researchers proved these critics wrong by measuring the amount of waste left behind on more than 1,000 elementary and middle school students’ lunch trays both before and after the standards were imposed.

The study, published Tuesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that vegetable consumption increased by 16 percent in lunches served during the 2012 school year compared to during 2011. Fruit consumption remained the same, but the percentage of those who chose a fruit with their school lunch increased from 53 percent in 2011 to 76 percent in 2012. How about all of those uneaten apples and green beans winding up in the compost heap?

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“There was no increase in food waste,” said study leader Juliana Cohen, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health. “Kids were actually eating the fruit or vegetable they were selecting.”

Well, sort of. Cohen and her colleagues found that kids still waste a lot of nutritious foods, discarding 60 to 75 percent of the vegetables on their trays and 40 percent of the fruit, but they didn’t wind up wasting more when forced to take something colorful and plantlike.

“School lunch producers need to focus more on palatability and quality,” Cohen said. Kids may prefer a small bag of baby carrots or sliced apples sprinkled with cinnamon, for example, instead of frozen peas and carrots or a brown banana.

Parents tempted to leave the apple or orange out of their child’s brown bag lunch—worried that it might be thrown away—should keep at it, Cohen advised, since other research suggests that kids eventually try foods after being repeatedly exposed to them.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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