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Student attitudes changing on healthy school lunches, studies say

Discarded lunches drop in one Utah district, but others still see lots of waste

Published: Thursday, July 24 2014 2:53 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 24 2014 2:53 p.m. MDT

A student picks up grapes in the lunch line at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — After throwing a bit of a tantrum, the nation's children have collectively quieted down and eaten their vegetables, at least according to studies from Utah and Illinois.

In one study, published in the journal Childhood Obesity, researchers with the University of Illinois at Chicago polled 500 administrators about student reactions to new federal school lunch guidelines implemented during the 2012-13 school year.

Of the administrators surveyed, 56 percent said students initially complained about the healthier lunches, which include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables while trimming portion sizes and calories.

But by the end of the school year, 64 percent said few complaints remained and 70 percent said students generally liked the new lunch items.

"We feel like these data support the new meals and show that although change can be slow, there have not been as many student complaints as thought to be," Lindsey Turner, the lead author of the study, told the Wall Street Journal.

The new guidelines, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, generated an immediate backlash when they were implemented in 2012. Students complained of insufficient portion sizes, parents balked at higher prices and school officials reported that garbage cans overflowed with uneaten produce.

Participation rates in the school lunch program dropped nationwide, but Jordan School District dietitian Katie Bastian said students are now returning to the cafeteria and are showing a greater willingness to eat healthy items.

"No high school student is going to want to be told what you can or can’t do, so I think it was initial rebellion to throw the whole fruit or vegetable away," she said. "They’ve gotten used to it and a lot of them will eat it now, or they don’t have to be told to take it, they just know they need to have it on their plate."

The University of Chicago survey supports the results of a Jordan School District plate waste study conducted by Bastian as part of her master's thesis.

Bastian's study, which observed the frequency of students discarding whole or partially eaten fruits and vegetables, found that attitudes toward healthy meals began shifting in the first year of the new guidelines.

"We weren’t weighing things out, but just by eyeballing what was going in the trash can compared from the fall to the spring there was definitely a noticeable difference that we tried to quantify," Bastian said.

Between the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2013, the percentage of elementary school students who threw away whole fruits and vegetables fell from 29 percent to 19 percent while the percentage of students who ate most of their servings climbed from 20 percent to 53 percent.

At the secondary level, discard rates fell from 18 percent to 10 percent while consumption rates climbed from 31 percent to 57 percent.

"Even just six months later we saw, in that short amount of time, an improvement in the portion sizes," Bastian said. "The kids were at least trying or eating some of them rather than just throwing the whole fruit or vegetable away."

She said the school district implemented a number of changes aimed at improving school lunch satisfaction. The district started a farm-to-school program of serving local produce in the fall that has been popular with students and rolled out an app that provides digital menu information and the ability to rate specific lunch items.

Bastian said the district's lunch app has provided school nutrition staff with valuable and positive feedback as the try to create menus students will enjoy while staying within the federal requirements.

"We like to think they’re making better choices," she said. "They’re choosing more of the fruits and vegetables, especially the fresh ones. Those always go first and very quickly."

But other districts report lingering issues with the new guidelines. Davis School District Food Services director Pam Tsakalos said the district is spending an additional $300,000 each year on produce to comply with the guidelines, but relatively little is seeing the inside of a student's mouth.

"The waste is horrendous," she said.

Tsakalos said students don't like being told they have to select a fruit or vegetable in order to receive their lunch.

She said that rule combined with increased prices and negative media reports surrounding the new guidelines have created a "perfect storm" that has seen the number of daily lunches served by the Davis School District drop by more than 3,500.

The drop in the participation rate has plateaued, Tsakalos said, but will likely take years to return to levels prior to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

"Once you lose that, it’s almost impossible to gain that back," she said.

In Alpine School District, Nutrition Services director Linda Ward said school officials are hearing fewer complaints about food but that the number of lunches served remains down roughly 12 percent since 2012.

As in other districts, Ward said the increased emphasis on produce has been coldly received by students. But she added that the switch to whole grain wheat has been a particular sticking point.

"Pizza made with a whole grain crust just isn’t pizza," she said.

Tsakalos said the Davis District is learning from and continuing to adapt to the new standards, switching out less popular food items for more child-friendly alternatives.

She also said students discarding uneaten food on their way to the playground or their next class is not a new phenomenon. But the requirement that schools provide healthier items like whole grains and fresh produce has resulted in comparatively expensive garbage.

"Waste has always been an issue," she said, "it's just now you're having to spend money for things to offer that don't get consumed."

The new guidelines represent a major shift for the federal school lunch program, which has remained relatively unchanged for more than a decade.

Ward said the conventional wisdom is that new lunch guidelines require five years of adaptation before being accepted as a new normal. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is now entering its third academic year and educators, she said, are hopeful that the worst is behind them.

"We're in the transition period," she said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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