First Lady Michelle Obama may mean well, but overturning school lunch policy based on the beliefs of someone who was paid $300,000 per year to do community outreach for a university wasn't really helping the poor children for whom a school lunch may be their most meaningful meal of the day.

Mandating fruit, which is what the USDA required in 2012, is fine, except a lot of it goes in the garbage. Most decisions are based on fads and gimmicks rather than real data.

Vermont's Charlotte Central school cafeteria has basically a restaurant menu, with locally sourced ingredients, including herbs and vegetables from the playground garden. There's just one problem; the higher cost is obvious but does it work?

Rachel Johnson, a Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont, and undergraduates recently imaged children's trays when they left the lunch line and then again when they finished eating. They had already weighed and photographed a correct portion of each fruit and vegetable item offered, as well as analyzed recipes to determine how much fruit and vegetable a serving contained.

You can mandate fruits and vegetables, but you can't make kids eat. Scholars measure the meal kids actually consume. Credit: Photo: Sally McCay

Then they compared before and after photos with the comparison data to determine consumption, a less labor-intensive means of assessing dietary intake compared to the current gold standard of individually weighing portions selected before a child can eat against plate waste. 

 The process involves taking the tray image at an accurate angle for later analysis, while also capturing the number on lanyards that participating children wear to track the trays. In their article, they talk about how great their method is, and perhaps it is, but there is still no data showing lunch interventions like farm-to-school programs and school gardens actually lead to preferences for risotto or any other fancy concoction.

In an earlier Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, they found that the fruits and vegetables that students are choosing at lunch are largely processed versions, primarily 100 percent fruit juice and high calorie entrees such as pizza and lasagna, with the tomato in the sauce qualifying as a vegetable.

But Johnson is optimistic that over time, with the introduction of appealing whole fruits and vegetables into familiar favorites, for instance, that kids will come around. Research associate Bethany Yon, in a study recently published in the Journal of School Health, found that it's worked with flavored milk. When the dairy industry, in advance of impending regulations, started to reformulate flavored milk, traditionally high in both fat and sugar content, they did so incrementally, by reducing either fat or sugar to lower calories. Yon's work, using shipment data as a proxy for consumption, has shown that, after some small blips, milk consumption has stayed consistent. "It was nice to see," she says, "that small, subtle changes go unnoticed overall by students."

That milk, as Johnson has known since her earliest days as a researcher, is critical. As people first became concerned about childhood obesity, Johnson started looking at beverage consumption and how that impacted the overall quality of a child's diet. Between 1940 and the 1990s, she says, the curve makes a big X with soft drink consumption going up and milk consumption going down. "We were one of the first to sound this alarm," she says, "showing that when kids don't have milk at lunch they don't come close to meeting their dietary needs -- and the beverages displacing milk add empty calories." 

 Published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Source: University of Vermont