As of 2012, the National School Lunch Program in the U.S. requires that school lunches be healthier. These meals need to have more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less fat, salt, and sugar. Some school food service professionals are having better luck getting the kids to eat the new meals than others. Looking into what works for them may help other schools improve student nutrition as well.
Some studies have shown that requiring kids to choose a fruit or vegetable before exiting the lunch line has led to an increase in waste and not necessarily an increase in consumption. While waste has increased in some schools, other research shows that dietary quality may be better even in view of this waste. Suggestions for getting around this involve making it easier and more enjoyable for kids to eat these fruits and vegetables by offering them in a different manner, such as sliced apple with dip rather than a whole apple. Offering kids a bit more choice by providing a salad bar, a stir-fry station, or allowing the kids some say in the menu options has also shown good results. Some schools also have a special area set aside where students can place whole, uneaten fruits, such as a banana, orange or apple, and other students can grab them to eat later. This at least keeps the food out of the trash.
Although the School Nutrition Association is trying to get the rules changed to make them less strict and notes that the new rules have caused decreases in student participation, this isn't necessarily the case. A study in Washington state found that participation was almost the same, decreasing by only 1 percent and that the schools participating in the study weren't experiencing large increases in waste. Preparing meals from scratch, sometimes using special recipes developed with the collaboration of a chef, instead of using processed foods formulated to meet the lunch requirements, has helped some schools increase participation and limit waste.
Increased Costs/Decreased Revenue
Although the School Nutrition Association notes that up to 70 percent of schools have had decreased revenue because of the changes to the guidelines, this isn't necessarily the case. Some schools have found ways around this, including better meal planning and taking advantage of a provision that allows schools in low-income areas to provide free meals to all the students (and get more money the government). According to the USDA, school lunch participation and revenue have actually increased, and 95 percent of schools are successfully implementing the healthier school lunch guidelines.
Something that's often overlooked in school lunch discussions is the fact that the amount of time kids actually have to eat has been decreasing due to schools trying to find more academic time to prepare for standardized testing. Kids sometimes only have about 10 minutes to eat by the time they wait in line and get their lunch, as lunch periods are now only 20 minutes long in some schools. Students with longer lunch times eat more of their food -- including the fruits and vegetables -- than students with shorter lunchtimes. If students start with their main dish, they sometimes just run out of time before they get to the fruit or vegetable.
To learn more about this topic, talk to school nutrition associations like Servesmart.