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Trays of Hope

Go figure: A new study finds elementary school students are actually eating their fruits and veggies.

Trays of Hope
By Donna Burch

After years of implementing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new lunch standards, school food service workers are finally getting a break. There will be no major changes to school lunches during the coming school year.

Since the 2012-13 school year, all school districts participating in the federal lunch program have been required to implement new guidelines intended to make school lunches and breakfasts healthier.

The first big change required students to take at least one fruit or vegetable when going through the school lunch line. Before, it was optional.

USDA officials and food service workers quickly learned a very expensive lesson: The government can force students to put fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays, but it doesn’t have the power to make students eat them.

The result was millions of “healthy” trash cans in lunchrooms throughout the country as students tossed the offending items in the garbage. As food service managers watched their budgets soar (fruits and vegetables cost more than processed foods), they struggled to find new menu items that met the USDA’s requirements and that kids would actually eat.

Now three years later, Chesterfield and Henrico public schools have finally finished implementing most of the biggest changes required by the USDA’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

School lunches are healthier than they’ve ever been, but are students eating them?

A new Virginia Commonwealth University study hints that the USDA’s changes may actually be working.

Last fall, VCU researchers used a $100,000 National Institutes of Health grant to see if students at Hopkins and Beulah elementary schools in Chesterfield County were eating their fruits and vegetables. Students’ lunch trays were rated based on what percentage of fruits and vegetables remained after they finished eating.

About 20 percent of students did not eat any of their fruits or vegetables.

“About 40 percent ate everything, which was the most common outcome,” reports Suzanne Mazzeo, a professor in VCU’s psychology department. “Most kids – roughly 80 percent – ate at least some of the fruits and vegetables. Most kids are eating the fruits and vegetables is the bottom line.”

The researchers also conducted sample tastings at one school to see if that would increase the students’ future acceptance of certain fruits and vegetables. When they followed up six weeks after the end of the study, they found that students at the school with the sample tastings generally ate more fruits and vegetables than the other school.

Mazzeo was inspired to conduct the study after seeing YouTube videos with kids complaining about the new school lunch requirements and reading national news stories claiming the changes weren’t working. She wondered if those videos and stories were really indicative of what was happening within public schools.

She chose Hopkins and Beulah for her study because both are Title I schools, with a high population of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches based on their families’ incomes.

“We targeted them because they are less likely to be exposed to fruits and vegetables at home, and they are more likely to be dealing with obesity,” she says.

VCU has applied for another grant to conduct a similar study within some of Richmond’s inner city schools. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 includes a provision that allows schools to provide free lunch to all students at a school if at least 40 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches. The proposed study will look at how universal lunch impacts the eating habits of students.

“Does it make them more likely to eat fruits and vegetables as part of that lunch? Do they pack a lunch and get a school lunch, too?” Mazzeo asks. “We want to compare schools that did take advantage of this policy and those that didn’t to see if there are differences in what the kids are eating.”

Of course, the fruit and vegetable requirement is only one of several school lunch changes that have been implemented over the past three years.

During the 2012-13 school year, schools also had to stop selling whole or 2 percent milk, and all milk products must be fat-free or 1 percent.

The USDA also set maximum limits for the number of grains and proteins that could be included in school lunches. Portion sizes were raised the following year when students began complaining that they were still hungry after eating lunch because the maximum limits were initially too low.

Last year, all schools participating in the federal lunch program were required to serve only whole grain-rich breads and pastas. New sodium restrictions (1,230 mg per meal for grades K-5, 1,360 mg for grades 6-8 and 1,420 mg for grades 9-12) also went into effect.

But last year’s biggest change involved the implementation of the USDA’s new Smart Snacks in School policy, which requires all snacks sold during the school day to meet certain calorie, sodium, fat and sugar limits. School lunch revenues took a hit when sugary and salty favorites, such as Pop-Tarts, Sun Chips, Chex Mix and Lance crackers, were no longer offered for sale in lunchrooms and vending machines.

And school clubs and PTAs had to give up or modify some of their most lucrative fundraising campaigns because they are no longer allowed to sell Krispy Kreme doughnuts, chocolate bars and other popular goodies during the school day.

Another round of sodium reductions scheduled for 2017 and 2022 is worrying food service managers. As proposed, beginning in 2022, school lunches for K-5 students would not be able to exceed 640 mg of sodium – slightly more than the per meal amount recommended for people with high blood pressure. Incrementally higher sodium levels will be allowed for older students.

Sandy Stokes, nutritionist supervisor with Chesterfield County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, has called the future sodium limits “extreme” and “impossible” to meet.

Lobbyist groups are working to raise the proposed limits.

School lunch programs have had to get creative when it comes to winning over kids who are notorious for being picky eaters.

In Chesterfield and Henrico, food service workers routinely hold sample tastings to gauge if students will eat new items before putting them on the menu.

It’s been a matter of trial and error to figure out which fruits and vegetables kids are more likely to eat.

“We constantly study current trends to determine what students are eating outside of schools,” says Andy Jenks, director of communications and public relations with Henrico County Public Schools. “We implement new concepts, such as Asian bars, burrito bars, Italian pasta bars … and specialty pizzas.”

Both school systems also use the Nutrislice app, which allows families to see detailed school lunch menus and nutritional information on their smartphones.

Some kids will always be problem eaters no matter what is put in front of them, but slowly – very slowly – school lunchrooms may be able to win over the stomachs of most students.

“You’re still going to get some kids who throw it away because they have to take it,” Stokes says, “but if it’s a gradual change for them, and as they see it more often, it will become more acceptable for them.”

© 2017 Chesterfield Observer