Food waste in school cafeterias has increased significantly since the passage of a USDA mandate requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable. Photo by Sally McCay/University of Vermont
BURLINGTON, Vt., Aug. 26 (UPI) -- While students are taking more fruits and vegetables with school lunches after mandates, more of them are being thrown away than eaten.
Guidelines put in place in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture required students take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch in an effort to improve children's health. The new guidelines improved the percentage of children with one of the two healthy options on their lunch tray from 84 percent to more than 97 percent.
In a separate survey, lunch officials reported an increase in waste from students -- specifically vegetables -- leading researchers to mount a study in order to find out how many fruits and vegetables were being consumed.
"The basic question we wanted to explore was if under these 2012 USDA guidelines, does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable correspond with consumption," said Sarah Amin, a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, in a press release. "It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line."
Using a digital image method to survey students who took fruit or vegetables and find whether they were eaten or thrown away, researchers documented 498 trays at 10 schools before the new guidelines were implemented and 944 trays at 11 schools after they were put into effect.
Despite the 13.3 percent increase in the number of students with a fruit or vegetable on their tray, researchers saw an 11.8 percent decrease in the amount of either being eaten and a 56 percent increase in waste.
The researchers suggest additional tactics to motivate students to actually eat the fruits and vegetables, including dips, cutting them up, or considering the types of options children like. Previous studies have shown that processed vegetables such as pizza sauce and 100 percent fruit juice are preferable to many children over whole versions.
"There are some really promising strategies targeting school settings such as farm-to-school programs and school gardens that can help to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in addition to what the cafeteria is providing," said Amin. "An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption. We can't give up hope yet."
The study is published in Public Health Reports.