USDA to School Kids: Eat Your Vegetables

Students who are offered more fruits and vegetables in their school lunches tend to eat more of these healthy food choices. But there are still a lot of kids who won’t touch their vegetables, especially if there’s anything else on the menu.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a lot to fret over – rural development, housing, ag commodity programs, food stamps. As if these and dozens of other programs weren’t enough, the department is also in charge of trying to get school kids to eat their vegetables.

A new study from the Economic Research Service confirms that this isn’t an easy job.

The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act increased the amount of fruit and vegetables that schools must serve in student lunches. The change is supposed to help students adhere better to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The ERS looked at whether offering more fruits and vegetables will mean that children will actually eat more of these foods. The results are mixed.

Kids who have access to more fruits and vegetables at school do tend to eat more of those healthy foods. There’s some indication that the new school-lunch standards will contribute to better student nutrition. But there are still a lot of children who wouldn’t touch a green or orange vegetable with a 10-foot spork.

The study used 2005 data on student consumption. Researchers found that students at schools that already met the 2010 school-lunch guidelines (years before they were enacted) ate more fruits and vegetables. That’s an indication that the 2010 legislation is going to help student nutrition. But a lot of students who had the chance to eat more vegetables didn’t.

Conclusion: Offering the healthy foods alone may not be enough to change students’ eating behavior.

It seems like an obvious finding. But other parts of the study show that our assumptions on student nutrition aren’t always valid.

Figure 1
The chart shows that students at schools that met the 2010 nutrition standards for school lunches tended to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables than students who attended schools that didn’t meet those standards.

For example, the researchers thought students who were poor or came from “food-insecure” households would tend to eat more fruits and vegetables. This didn’t turn out to be the case.

On the other hand, other groups of students did tend to eat more fruits and vegetables when they were available. These groups included black and Hispanic students, students from Spanish-speaking households, younger students and females.

Two more non-surprises: Students identified as picky eaters were less likely to eat vegetables. And having an a la carte menu tended to reduce students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables. In other words, when they were given the choice to eat something besides vegetables, many students did just that.


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