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New Federal Guidelines for School Meals Boost Fruit, Vegetable Consumption

Update Date: Mar 04, 2014 05:40 PM EST

Federal guidelines launched in 2012 have significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption, according to a new study.

Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health looked at school food consumption before and after the new federal standards, which require schools to offer healthier meals, went into effect and found that the guidelines boosted fruit and vegetable consumption.

Researchers said the latest finding goes against criticisms that the new standards will increase food waste.

"There is 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," lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, said in a news release.

The latest study analyzed plate waste data among 1,030 students in an urban, low-income school district both before and after the new standards. They found that fruit selection increased by 23 percent, entrée and vegetable selection remained unchanged. However, consumption of vegetables increased by 16.2 percent. While fruit consumption was unchanged, researchers noted that more fruit was consumed post-implementation because more students selected fruit overall.

Most importantly, the study revealed that the new standards did not increase food waste. Researchers said the study goes against anecdotal reports from food service directors, teachers, parents, and students that the regulations led to an increase in waste because of larger portion sizes and the requirement that students select a fruit or vegetable.

Nonetheless, researchers noted that high levels of fruit and vegetable waste continued to be a problem. The study revealed that students threw away 60 to 75 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruits on their trays.

Researchers recommend that schools focus on improving food quality and taste to cut waste.

"The new school meal standards are the strongest implemented by the USDA to date, and the improved dietary intakes will likely have important health implications for children," researchers concluded.

The findings are published in the journal American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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