(UPDATED, Jan. 6) Researchers say a study of 1.7 million school meals over a three-year period confirms the value of increased fruit and vegetables servings in updated nutrition standards.
The study looked at school meals for thousands of students in three middle schools and three high schools in an urban and ethnically diverse district near Seattle, Wash.. The study was funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and considered the nutrition value of school meals both before and after the updated standards were put in place.
Examining the nutritional qualities of school lunches and participation rates by students were two key points of study of the updated standards, said Mary Podrabsky, researcher and instructor at the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington,
“The updated school meal standards are working,” Podrabsky said Dec. 30. “They are doing what they are supposed to do.”
The research looked at foods selected by 7,200 students in middle and high schools, at a district where 54% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The study considered data from January 2011 to January 2014, according to the release. Podrabsky said researchers used food production records at the target schools, records that show both what food was produced and what types of food were served and taken by students.
Compared with before the standards were in place, the study found that school meals chosen by students increased 29% in nutritional value (calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, fiber and protein), while the calorie content per gram declined by 13%.
The study also found no statistically significant difference in school lunch participation, with 47% of students participating in the school lunch program before the healthier standards were in place and 46% participation recorded afterward.
“Contrary to some of the things we have heard around the country, we found the lunch participation rates remained stable after the standards were in play,” Podrabsky said.
The study did not look at plate waste, Podrabsky said.
“That’s an honest limitation of the study, but when you take a look at what we did in concert with other studies that are out there around plate waste and around consumption, we think it builds evidence that the standards are working,” she said.
About 97% of U.S. school districts are in compliance with the updated standards that were put in place in early 2012.
“The bumps along the way early in terms of implementing them are smoothing out, and there is technical assistance available,” she said.
Work continues on creative ways to introduce fruits and vegetables to students of all grade levels.
Podrabsky said there is strong parental support for the updated nutrition standards.
“We certainly believe that this adds to the argument of keeping the standards strong and not rolling them back,” she said. “In terms of fruits and vegetables, we found the increase in nutritional quality was related to increased servings and variety of fruits and vegetables made available to students.”
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association said in a statement that the study results reinforce the need to continue the serving standards for fruits and vegetables.
"Healthy school meals help children ‘make half their plate fruits and vegetables,’ Stenzel said in the statement. "I urge Congress to maintain the strong fruit and vegetable standards in school meals as they work to reauthorize the child nutrition programs.”