Mandating fruits and vegetables in school meals makes a difference

State laws that require minimum levels of fruits and vegetables in school meals may give a small boost to the amount of these foods in adolescents’ diets, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This effect was strongest in students who had no access to fruits and vegetables at home.

With the recent requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National School Lunch Program to incorporate healthier options in school meals, the researchers wanted to find out if such laws made a difference in student fruit and vegetable consumption.

At the time the data were collected, the only states in the study that required high schools to provide a minimum number of servings of fruits and vegetables were California and Mississippi, said Daniel Taber, Ph.D., M.P.H., research scientist with the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead author on the study.

Students in California and Mississippi who had limited access to fruits and vegetables at home, typically ate unhealthy snacks and who got a school lunch four to five days a week reported an average of 0.45 cups more fruit and 0.61 cups more vegetables than did those who lived in states with no fruit or vegetable requirements in school lunches. Intake was highest in adolescents with access to fruits and vegetables at home.

School nutrition standards have been targeted by policy makers as a way to reduce obesity and disparities in diet, and to get teenagers into the habit of eating fruits and vegetables. Mississippi and other southern states have been aggressive about improving school foods as a means of combating obesity, Taber said. “They are seeing evidence already. Reports in last few months show that childhood obesity is declining in Mississippi.”

“The study is excellent but the data does not reflect the new school meal regulations from the [USDA that] went into effect in July 2012,” said Deborah Beauvais, R.D., district supervisor of school nutrition for the Gates Chili and East Rochester School Districts in New York and a spokesperson f or Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Newer rules affect all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and require that a half-cup of fruit or vegetable and up to two cups be in every lunch menu each day, noted Beauvais, adding, “These changes will make the findings from this study more likely.” Introducing young people to eating fruits and vegetables regularly in schools helps them want to eat them elsewhere, Beauvais observed. “School cafeterias are becoming recognizable as educational centers.”

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