A study released Aug. 26 by researchers at the University of Vermont paints a picture of school meals that experts at Hunger Free Vermont say is misleading. New school meal regulations that were put into place at the start of the 2012-2013 school year in an effort to add more whole grains and increase fruit and vegetable variety/intake received much national attention and critique. In Vermont, there were mixed reactions from school food service professionals who were required to implement these new regulations. However, according to Erika Dolan, president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont and a school food service director in Waterbury/Duxbury, the new nutrition rules have encouraged Vermont schools to “add more variety to school meals, and strengthen school food service staff cooking and customer service skills,” such that Vermont schools now lead the nation in implementing best practices in school meals.
“Vermont schools are making the regulations work and increasing school meal participation through a variety of strategies,” says Anore Horton, nutrition initiatives director at Hunger Free Vermont, “While there was some initial increase in plate waste as schools made adjustments to the new rules in the first year, they have since mostly leveled off.”
Because the UVM study is small in scope (involving only two elementary schools in Vermont) and conducted only in the semester before (spring 2012) and the first year after implementation of the new nutrition rules (spring 2013), this study is an inaccurate representation of the school meals environment and behaviors of students in the lunchroom. There have been many more studies that refute the findings in the UVM study, including a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. This study found that students are taking more fruit, and actually eating more of the vegetables put on their tray, even while the quantity of vegetables on their tray has increased. Overall fruit selection increased by 23 percent and the consumption of the vegetables selected increased by 16.2 percent. While plate waste continues to be a challenge, the new standards did not result in increased food waste.
Steve Marinelli, food service director for the Milton Town school district in Vermont sees first-hand every day how willing students are to try new, healthy foods. “Since the implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act we have noticed a steady increase of consumption of fruit and vegetables by our students,” remarks Marinelli, “They enjoy the variety, opportunity to try new fruits and vegetables and the ability to select from our fruit and veggie bars. As a district we measure our compost with district wide ‘waste wars’ and have noticed a steady decline of compostable food product.”
Hunger Free Vermont works closely with food service directors throughout the state who often cite the limited time allowed for students to eat as the biggest contributor to food waste. A recent time-to-eat study, “Impact of School Lunch Period Length on Meal Consumption,” found that compared with students who had a least 25 minutes to eat their meal, students with fewer than 20 minutes to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit (44 percent vs. 57 percent). They also consumed 12 percent less of their entrée, 10 percent less of their milk, and 11 percent less of their vegetables.
“I’ve heard from many state and national school nutrition partners since today’s release of the UVM study who strongly disagree with these findings,” says Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont says. “We do not feel the University of Vermont study gives an accurate portrayal of what’s happening in today’s school meal programs. As we begin a new school year, Vermont schools are leading the way in providing fresh, local food to children in creative ways, thus changing how a generation of children experience their school cafeteria, their learning, and their health.”
Hunger Free Vermont is a statewide nonprofit organization that works with state agencies and community groups to end the injustice of hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters. Since 1993 Hunger Free Vermont’s outreach programs have substantially enhanced Vermont’s nutrition safety net and increased access to nutritious foods. For more information visit www.hungerfreevt.org