The belief in Washington, D.C. political circles is that if kids have no choice, they will eventually eat whatever they are given. And they will grow to like it.
Does that work? In some instances it does, which is all the validation that culturally estranged people need to continue with a social experiment. The mistake they make is using the number of kids who take the food they are given and assuming that eventually it means the kids will eat it.
Probably not, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study, at least unless the government starts going into homes and controlling what they eat there as well.
Researchers observed 274 children in kindergarten through second grade in 10 New York City public schools as they selected from the offerings during one lunch period when a chicken-and-vegetable entrée was on the menu. They watched to see whether each of the six-through-eight-year-olds chose a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, low-fat milk and/or a lean protein, taking before and after photos of the trays.
They found that while 75 percent of the kids chose the lean protein (the entrée), only 58 percent chose a fruit and 59 percent chose a vegetable. And among those who put the various types of food on their trays, only 75 percent took even a single bite of the protein, while only 24 percent ate a bite of their vegetables.
"We have been thinking that if young children choose healthy food, they will eat it," says Susan M. Gross, PhD, MPH, a research associate in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But our research shows that is not necessarily so."
The environment in the cafeteria had a major impact on whether the children ate their lunches. Along with recording how much food the children selected and ate, the researchers also examined the noise level, supervision level, how full the cafeteria was, the length of the lunch period and the packaging of foods.
They found that children were much more likely to finish their food if a teacher ate in the cafeteria with them. They found that more children ate their vegetables and whole grains when it was quieter in the cafeteria, though noise had little effect on consumption in the other food groups. The children were more likely to eat when their food was cut up into smaller pieces and when lunch periods were longer.
The findings come as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the often-criticized Child Nutrition Act, which funds the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program and which mandated new dietary guidelines requiring schools to provide healthier lunches including whole grains, lean protein and low-fat milk. There has been pushback in many circles because mass production of those foods can be more difficult and more costly and students often throw them out, leading to more waste and cost.
"As much as we are focused on menus in the school lunch program, we need to look more at our cafeteria environments, especially with our youngest children," Gross says. "We can give kids the healthiest food possible, but if they don't have time to eat it or they are distracted by how noisy the cafeteria is, they're not going to eat it. They're on their own and we need to do as much as possible to help them through that lunch period."