SAN ANTONIO — Improvements to menus and the “choice architecture” in school meals may not produce the long-term results the industry hopes to see, but a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found a key element that might.

During a presentation at the Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids conference at the Culinary Institute of America on May 7, Harvard researcher Juliana Cohen said the study found chef collaboration was a vital component for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption long-term.

The study looked at consumption using plate waste methodology, Cohen said, a tedious but accurate method for measuring actual food consumtion. Researchers looked at the exact percentage consumed for every item on a tray, and tracked the same children over time.

In the short term, children chose more fruits and vegetables when given an altered “choice architecture,” which steered them toward more healthful food options, but in the long term there was no significant affect on consumption, she said.

“The only place where you had an impact was the place where there was a chef present,” she said. “Kids in ‘smart café’ schools threw out 80% of their vegetables, in the chef schools they were consuming 60% of vegetables.”

Cohen stressed the need for school foodservice to continue efforts to improve the nutritional value — and taste — of school meals, and to stick to programs for the long run. Researchers found the best results when studied throughout the school year.

“Schools should seriously consider collaborating with chefs to improve the palatability of foods,” she said. “Choice architecture does help in getting kids exposed to new items, but that’s all they’re doing — taking a bite. It was the chefs that led to significant increases in overall consumption.”

The study was published online in JAMA Pediatrics, March 23, 2015.

The presentation was part of a 3-day event with more than 150 school food professionals, said Sanna Delmonico, senior manager for culinary nutrition and strategic initiatives for the Culinary Institute of America.

Participants talked about improving taste, nutrition, processes and ingredients, and ways for school districts to tout the changes they’ve undertaken to improve their foodservice programs.