Field Notes

New School Standards Increase Fruit, Vegetable Consumption

New federal standards launched in 2012 that require schools to offer more healthful meals have led to increased fruit and vegetable consumption, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers. The study, the first to examine school food consumption both before and after the standards went into effect, contradicts criticisms that the new standards have increased food waste.

“There’s a push from some organizations and lawmakers to weaken the new standards. We hope the findings, which show that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables, will discourage those efforts,” says lead author Juliana Cohen, ScD, research fellow in the department of nutrition at HSPH.

Some 32 million students eat school meals every day. For many low-income students, up to one-half of their daily energy intake comes from school meals.

Under the previous dietary guidelines, school breakfasts and lunches were high in sodium and saturated fats and were low in whole grains and fiber. The new standards from the USDA aimed to improve the nutritional quality of school meals by making whole grains, fruits, and vegetables more available, requiring the selection of a fruit or vegetable, increasing the portion sizes of fruits and vegetables, removing trans fats, and placing limits on total calories and sodium levels.

The researchers collected plate waste data among 1,030 students in four schools in an urban, low-income school district both before (fall 2011) and after (fall 2012) the new standards went into effect. Following the implementation of the new standards, fruit selection increased by 23%, while entrée and vegetable selection remained unchanged. In addition, vegetable consumption increased by 16.2%; fruit consumption was unchanged, but because more students selected fruit, overall, more fruit was consumed postimplementation.

Importantly, the new standards didn’t result in increased food waste, contradicting anecdotal reports from foodservice directors, teachers, parents, and students that the regulations were causing an increase in waste due to both larger portion sizes and the requirement that students select a fruit or vegetable. However, high levels of fruit and vegetable waste continued to be a problem: Students discarded roughly 60% to 75% of vegetables and 40% of fruits on their trays. The authors say that schools must focus on improving food quality and palatability to reduce waste.

— Source: Harvard School of Public Health


Dinner Tonight! Program Promotes Family Nutrition

The percentage of the family food budget spent on away-from-home food has steadily increased since the 1970s and so has the amount of calories families consume, says a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service family and consumer sciences expert in Dallas.

“When dining out, there’s a tendency to choose foods higher in calories, and large portions have become more common,” says Susan Ballabina, PhD, AgriLife Extension’s North Texas regional program director for family and consumer sciences. “In addition, many people become overwhelmed when they think of menu planning and trying to prepare healthful, cost-effective meals for themselves and their families.”

To help address this situation, Ballabina says, the Dinner Tonight! program was developed by AgriLife Extension agents statewide with the knowledge and expertise to provide resources and recipes to help encourage at-home family mealtime. This program provides quick, nutritious, cost-effective recipes to consumers through weekly video webcasts and other Web-based methods, including blogs and Facebook.

“Every Monday, a new video demonstration is released by a member of the Dinner Tonight! team,” Ballabina says. “We also added Dinner Tonight Healthy Cooking Schools as a new initiative in 2012. These cooking schools provide an opportunity to bring people together in a fun environment to further our mission of teaching families about healthful meal planning and preparation.”

There now are more than 200 free video webcasts of easy-to-prepare nutritious recipes available at http://healthyliving.tamu.edu/dinners. The videos average three to five minutes and are produced in a similar manner as mainstream television cooking shows. Families can sign up on the website to receive weekly e-mails announcing new recipes.

“We had 50 new video demonstrations released in 2012 and had 18,049 unique visitors from over 50 different countries or territories to the Dinner Tonight! website,” Ballabina says. “We also have more than 1,000 people currently following Dinner Tonight! on Facebook.”

Additionally, Dinner Tonight! videos are shown each Monday in the Dallas area on the KWTX “Mom’s Every Day” newscast. “In 2012, we also conducted eight Dinner Tonight Healthy Cooking Schools, reaching over 950 people.”

Ballabina says program evaluations have shown Dinner Tonight! efforts have been “highly successful in having a positive impact on family nutrition” based on evaluation surveys given to those involved in the program.

“Almost all of those we have surveyed responded they intend to prepare some of the recipes demonstrated and to experiment with healthful recipe modifications and substitutions,” she says. “And a large majority say they intend to incorporate new, healthful foods in their diet, eat more fruits and vegetables, and plan healthful meals in advance.”

— Source: Texas AgriLife Research