Most Idaho kids went back to school this week, meaning for many, a return to school lunches. Food in public schools has changed significantly since new federal nutrition guidelines were passed in 2010.
Every lunch served at public schools now must include a fruit, a vegetable and something with whole grain. The meals also contain less fat and a lot less salt than they did just a few years ago. There’s still pizza on the menu, but now it might have whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese.
“Right off the bat, there were some complaints, but generally they seem to fade over time,” says Boise State researcher Lindsey Turner. “Most of the kids seem to like the meals just fine.”
Turner is part of a research project at the University of Illinois at Chicago called Bridging the Gap. It’s funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is “dedicated to improving the understanding of how policies and environmental factors influence diet, physical activity and obesity among youth.”
As part of that, Turner conducted a national survey of elementary cafeteria workers and administrators who spend lunch hours with kids. More than half of them said when the new meals were introduced, kids complained. But at the time of the survey, in the spring of 2013, kids had been eating the revamped lunches for about six months. Now, 70 percent of respondents said the kids like the meals.
“One main concern was that if you serve this type of food that kids might not eat it,” she says. “And that is not what we found at all with our data. And I think it’s very encouraging. We have, as a country, improved the quality of our school meals dramatically. And the kids are eating it.”
Turner says there has not been a drop off in kids getting school lunches and that kids are largely eating the fruits and vegetables not throwing them out. Some of her results are published in the August issue of the journal Childhood Obesity.
Turner did not find any regional differences in how kids were reacting to the new meals, but did find a difference between urban and rural schools. Rural schools reported significantly more complaints. Turner doesn’t have an explanation for that, but speculates maybe it’s because they aren’t serving the same things.
“The rural schools tended to have more trouble implementing these new meals,” Turner says. “There are some supply issues with rural schools being some distance away from suppliers, potentially having trouble sourcing the ingredients that they need.”
Overall, Turner says most schools have been able to fully implement the new requirements, though it was difficult for many. But she thinks it’s worth it.
“Because these new meals have updated nutrition standards and are designed to increase kids access to fruits and vegetables and whole grains and things that nutritional science shows are very beneficial in a diet, we believe that this will improve the health of kids,” Turner says.
Find reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
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