NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Impact of the National School Lunch Program on Fruit and Vegetable Selection

August 28, 2015

The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated that the nearly 31 million school children fed by the National School Lunch Program each school day select either a fruit or vegetable at lunch. Researchers at the University of California -Davis and the University of Vermont studied the effects of this requirement in two northeastern elementary schools by collecting data from random samples of lunch trays from third through fifth-grade students. The student bodies at both schools had forty percent to sixty percent of children qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals. The results indicated that when required to select a fruit or vegetable with their lunch students do comply, but the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed decreased and waste increased.

  • When fruits and vegetables were optional for students in 2012, over fifteen percent of lunch trays did not contain either a fruit or vegetable.
  • Comparing when fruits and vegetables were required in 2013 to when they were optional in 2012 the percentage of unconsumed fruit and vegetables increased by eight percent in 2013.

Findings did indicate that younger children, first-grade through third-grade, consumed more fruits and vegetables when required compared to fourth and fifth grade students. Time may simply be necessary for students to adjust to the new mandate as older children were accustomed to optional and not required selection of fruits and vegetables. Repeated exposure to new foods will also be helpful for familiarizing students with fruits and vegetable offerings.

Suggestions for increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables students consume include:

  • Slicing fruits and vegetables which increases accessibility and appeal.
  • Implementing policies such as "Smart Snacks in Schools," which limits the calories, salt, sugars and fat contained in school snacks.
  • Exploring programs such as Farm to School, which is associated with increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among participants who had the lowest fruit and vegetable intake initially.

Source: Sarah A. Amin, MPH et al., "Impact of the National School Lunch Program on Fruit and Vegetable Selection in Northeastern Elementary Schoolchildren, 2012-2013," Public Health Reports, Sept-Oct 2015.

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