Do Healthier School Lunches Mean More Food Waste?

Font Size:

The debate on plate waste from healthy school lunches continues.

Font Size:

You can lead children to vegetables, but will they eat them? Critics of the most recent revision of U.S. school lunch nutrition standards claim that increased fruits and vegetables may mean increased plate waste. However, new research suggests that students are eating more fruits and vegetables because of the new standards.

The nutrition standards, published in 2012 by the Food and Nutrition Service and championed by first lady Michelle Obama, set new requirements for school meals offered to K-12 students across the country. In an effort to combat alarming trends in childhood obesity, the policy requires schools to offer more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and cut back on the amount of sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats in school meals.

The policy also mandates that students take a half-cup serving of fruits or vegetables with every school breakfast and lunch. During initial debates about the rule, some commenters expressed concerns that many of those fruits and vegetables would end up in the trash. “Plate waste,” they claimed, might render the revised nutrition standards costly and ineffective since students are forced to take food they do not want.

Three years later, the debate continues over whether plate waste concerns have come to fruition. A Twitter campaign, viralized by the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama, encourages students to post pictures of unappetizing and disappointing school meals online. Some commentators argue that requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunches­ has increased food waste by $684 million; others simply call the new standards a “disaster.”

At the center of the effort to remove the half-cup requirement is the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a trade group representing 55,000 food service professionals including food manufactures. According to the SNA, the fruit and vegetables requirement has proved costly and ineffective, “leaving schools with less funding to invest in more expensive, appealing choices.”

However, a wave of new research views the half-cup requirements’ impact on fruit and vegetable consumption as half full. A recent study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found an increase in fruit consumption accompanied by a significant decrease in plate waste under the revised standards implemented at twelve urban low-income schools. A 2014 study by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that per-student vegetable consumption increased 16.2% in the first year under the revised standards. And the New England Journal of Medicine notes a broad consensus among medical organizations that the standards remain important to build a “culture of health.” Their position rests on a belief that school lunch standards can change students’ food preferences.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists bolsters this premise. The report looked retrospectively at nationally representative survey data provided by the United States Department of Agriculture and found that fifth graders that qualified for and received free and reduced-price school meals (FRP) eat vegetables more often than their non-FRP classmates (22.2 times per week for FRP students versus 18.9 times per week for non-FRP students). The preferences appear enduring: by eighth grade, while preferences for vegetables seem to diminish across the board, FRP students continue to eat vegetables more often than non-FRP students (19.2 times per week as opposed to 17.6 times per week).

It is unlikely that political consensus on the effectiveness of the revised school lunch standards will arrive soon. However, the debate may illuminate the power of the hashtag relative to that of scientific consensus. For that, we’ll have to thank Michelle Obama.

This is part one of a three-part series featuring winning essays of a Penn Law administrative law writing competition.