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Students eventually adapt to more nutritious school lunches, survey finds

As politicians debate whether to keep the new federal school lunch standards or grant temporary waivers for districts that are losing money, a new study suggests that over time, children adapt and tolerate school lunches just as much as in the old days.

In a survey of 557 school administrators nationwide, researchers found that about half of respondents reported that elementary, middle, and high schools complained at first about the switch to whole wheat bread, plain low-fat milk, salads, and fresh fruit — and away from chocolate milk, pizza, and French fries. But 70 percent of the school administrators, who included principals and food service providers, said student acceptance of the meals had increased over time and their students now largely like the lunches.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Results of survey of 557 school administrators.

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The survey, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was conducted in the spring of 2013, about six months after the full set of standards went into effect. Results were published Monday in the journal Childhood Obesity.

“I think it’s great news,” said study leader Lindsey Turner, a research scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It really suggests that kids have adapted really well.”

Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, said in a statement that the study “reinforces what we have known all along: America’s school lunch program works,” and added that she hoped the finding “sends a strong message to Congress that schools should not be allowed to withdraw from or delay any federal nutrition standards.”

But the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and some food companies that supply school cafeterias, said the survey findings do not reflect the decrease in student participation in the National School Lunch Program. “Since schools began implementing the new requirements, 1.4 million fewer students choose school lunch, even though 1.77 million more students have access to school meals through NSLP, due to increasing enrollment at NSLP schools,” School Nutrition Association president Julia Bauscher said in a statement.

The survey researchers found that some schools clearly fared better than others with the implementation of the new standards.

“Staff at rural schools expressed more concern about challenges involved and perceived an increase in food being thrown away and more complaints from students,” Turner said.

Schools in richer areas reported a decrease in student purchases of school meals, while those with students at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale reported an increase in student purchases.

“What seems to be coming out of this survey is that some schools might need more help and support with implementing these standards,” Turner said, “especially those in rural areas that may have a hard time accessing supplies from food manufacturers” that supply more healthful foods.

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