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LA kids just say no to healthy foods

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The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has become a national leader in offering healthy foods; however, a new UCLA study has found that the students are rejecting the healthy items on their plate. The results were published online on May 22 in the journal Preventive Medicine.

The LAUSD serves more than 650,000 meals each day. In September 2011, it launched a new lunch menu, which features a variety of more wholesome food items, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, vegetarian items, and a variety of healthy ethnic foods. Two months after the new menu was in place, investigators from UCLA and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health began a study at four LA schools to determine how well the students were responding to the new items. They found that many kids were shunning the new, healthier items.

The researchers measured the amounts of food left unselected in cafeteria food lines and the amount of food left over on students’ lunch trays. They found that nearly 32% of students in the cafeteria lines did not select fruit, and almost 40% did not select vegetables. Among those who did select a fruit or vegetable, 22% tossed the fruit and 31% rejected vegetables, without eating a single bite. Boys consistently tossed more fruit and vegetables away without tasting them than did girls.

“Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day is essential for optimal health, and implementing changes to school menus, as has been done by the LAUSD, is an important first step to increasing students’ repertoire of acceptable fruits and vegetables,” explained co-author William McCarthy, a professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He added, “But increasing students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables is clearly a challenging task. Given the rising rates of obesity among children in this country, getting students to expand their range of acceptable fruits and vegetables is an important goal.”

Information regarding production waste, which is the food prepared in the school kitchen and left over after all students had been served, was derived from LAUSD electronic records maintained for breakfasts, snacks, and lunches. Data on plate waste, which is the food, plastic wrap, and cardboard packages that students left on their plates, were collected each day for five consecutive days at each school from a total of more than 2,000 middle school students. The students were asked to place their trays at one of two staffed stations, where the amount of waste was recorded; the investigators noted the students’ perceived gender and ethnicity. In addition, the food waste was bagged and weighed.

Dr. McCarthy noted that it is important for students to be more receptive to eating fruits and vegetables—and not just by drinking fruit juice—and that they need to be “primed” to accept menu changes such as the LAUSD’s. One strategy that has been proven to be effective is engaging students in the effort, especially boys. The researchers made the following recommendations:

  • Involving students in designing new menu options that use fruits and vegetables
  • Offering a greater variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from
  • Holding recess or physical education classes before lunch to increase students’ level of physical activity and, in turn, their hunger for water-rich fruits and vegetables
  • Encouraging students to participate in a school-based gardening program
  • Incorporating nutrition education into physics, biology and health classes
  • Implementing a marketing campaign to promote the new food items

Dr. McCarthy noted, “Given that children consume up to half of their daily nutrients in school, school foodservice departments can have a powerful influence on increasing students’ liking for healthier foods.” He added that it can take eight to 12 tastings for children to overcome their initial dislike of a new vegetable. He explained, “Schools need to be patient and tolerate some plate waste … but students will not expand their liking for fruits and vegetables if they don’t at least taste the food,” he said.

The concept of spending money on food that goes to waste can be a challenge for schools; however, Dr. McCarthy stressed that exposing all students, including those from poor families, to healthy eating practices is the more important societal goal. He said, “Today’s food waste is the forerunner to tomorrow’s healthy eating and therefore is a worthwhile investment.”