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Healthy lunches may be winning over students

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7 2014 12:55 p.m. MDT

It turns out students are actually eating healthier lunches, according to a new study.

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A new study from Bridging the Gap reports holes in previously released research claiming major losses in a new healthy lunch program.

According to Education Week, students were not a fan of the healthy food program in fall 2012, but over the last year and a half they're complaining less and "eating as much as they did before the rules went into place."

The research noted the initial reaction to the healthier options was poor, but the continued reports of the program's failure are “hyperbolic.”

“While many reported that students had complained at first in the fall, student complaints were far less common by the spring,” Bridging the Gap reported. “The generally positive reactions to updated school meal nutrition standards may indicate they are a promising strategy to improve the diets of children and adolescents.”

“However, reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality,” said Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association, in a statement quoted in the Education Week article. “While many changes have been welcomed by students, there is no denying that some of the new requirements have driven students away from the National School Lunch Program.”

The primary argument against the new health rules is that kids don’t want to eat the food; therefore, it’s going to waste. According to a study from Harvard University released in March, elementary and middle-school children are eating more fruits and vegetables.

The Harvard researchers collected plate waste of 1,030 students in four low-income schools over the past three years, including time before implementation. They found that fruit consumption increased by 23 percent, while vegetable consumption increased by 16.2 percent from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year.

“That’s consumption, not disposal,” the researchers reported.

“Researchers said their findings also busted a common story line advanced by opponents of the new standards — that more of the healthy food was going into the trash than into students' stomachs,” wrote Evie Blad of Education Week, reporting on Harvard’s findings.

These findings are in direct opposition to many school districts’ reports. Many schools are claiming the program has failed and has only led to waste, of both money and food. Some schools are working to opt out of the program by showing “significant financial loss,” Blad wrote in another Education Week article.

According to Harvard, those numbers are easy to skew and difficult to prove, as Blad wrote. A school trying to opt out would need to prove a net loss over six months in the 2014-15 school year, and the Harvard researchers doubt that this will be easy to do as students will be even more acclimated to the change.

According to both Harvard and Bridging the Gap, the only schools that have real cause for contesting the guidelines are high schools, because their students have a mobility that their middle school and elementary peers don’t.

"A lot of kids were resorting to going over to the convenience store across the block from school and kids were buying junk food," one 17-year-old told the Associated Press. "It was kind of ironic that we're downsizing the amount of food to cut down on obesity but kids are going and getting junk food to fill that hunger."

With students who have cars or are allowed to leave campus during lunch and free hours, high schools have seen genuine dips in lunch proceeds and argue they can’t afford to maintain the program.

“We can understand the troubles of high schools,” a representative of Bridging the Gap announced in a press conference, “but it seems unwise to abandon the program in its entirety. One day these younger students who are learning to like the healthy options will grow up and we don’t want to undo all the years of improvement at the high school level because of a little revenue loss.”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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