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A federally funded study on the effects of First Lady Michelle Obama’s school lunch standards found that vegetable consumption has “significantly decreased” since the rules went into effect.
The study, released by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, was praised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as authoritative research that more kids are eating fruit and fewer are throwing away their food.
However, the USDA neglected to mention that the study found that kids are choosing vegetables 16.5 percent less of the time since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was enacted in 2012.
“The percentage of students selecting vegetables significantly decreased from 68 [percent] in 2012 to 62 [percent] in 2013,” the study said.
Last year, even fewer students chose vegetables, dropping to 52 percent.
The study’s authors, a group of academics from UConn, Yale University, and Berkeley, rationalized the findings that since fewer kids were choosing vegetables to begin with, less ended up in the trash.
“The proportion of students who chose a vegetable dropped from 68 [percent] to 52 [percent], but students selecting vegetables ate nearly 20 [percent] more of them, effectively lowering vegetable waste,” they said.
The research was based on 12 schools in urban and low-income districts in Connecticut. The results found that while fruit selection went up from 53.7 percent to 70.6 percent in the first year of the standards, it dropped to 66 percent in 2014.
The study also concluded that broccoli is not very popular with students, as it was the lowest consumed vegetable at 38 percent. Salad did not fare much better, at only 42 percent consumption.
One of the study’s authors, Marlene B. Schwartz, the director for UConn’s Rudd Center, favors a soda tax, and wants to limit advertising of junk food to children.
“Children deserve to grow up in environments free from a barrage of messages to eat and drink unhealthy food,” she wrote in a paper released last November. “Given the effect on children’s health and future health care costs, food marketing to youth represents a serious business that warrants attention.”
The Center also advocates for a soda tax, arguing, “Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) can generate considerable revenue for states, cities, and the nation.”
An ideal tax for the center would include soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, ready to drink tea, energy drinks, flavored water, and ready to drink coffee, according to the Center’s revenue calculator. Such a law would take $787.4 million from New York taxpayers, according to the calculator.
The researchers said their study is limited because data was only collected once a year.
“This creates the possibility that an extremely popular entree such as pizza could disproportionately influence our findings,” they said. “Fortunately, this concern is reduced because there were 17 different entree served across the 36 days and no single option was systematically present in a particular school or year.”
The researchers were also puzzled as to why their sample size shrunk every year. In the first year of the standards, more than 1 million kids stopped buying school lunch, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“An additional limitation is that we do not know why our sample size decreased each year,” the study said. “Unfortunately, we were not able to collect data on the students from our cohort who did not choose the school lunch.”
“We do not know whether they were absent that day, eating a lunch from home or outside of school, or not eating at all,” they continued. “One reason for the decrease may be that, as the students grew older, they are less likely to participate in the school lunch.”
The researchers reasoned that students might have dropped out because “they did not like the new options,” but said participation in the school lunch program had been declining before the standards.
However, the GAO found that 1.2 million kids left the lunch line the first year the new standards were in effect, after participation in the program had “increased steadily for many years” prior to that.