The government’s push to mandate kids to eat healthier is finding its efforts at the bottom of a waste bin.
A study published last week in Public Health Reports found that while kids may be piling more fruits and vegetables onto their plates as federal guidelines require, most are just tossing the healthy additions into the trash.
Researcher Sarah Amin found waste more common after the Department of Agriculture implemented guidelines—championed by first lady Michelle Obama—that require children participating in the federal school lunch program to accompany their meals with either a fruit or veggie.
“We saw this as a great opportunity to access the policy change and ask a really important question, which was, ‘Does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable under the updated national school lunch program guidelines that came into effect in 2012 correspond with increased fruit and vegetable consumption?’” Amin, who led the study, told CBS. “The answer was clearly no.”
Researchers from the University of Vermont visited two elementary schools and took photographs of students’ lunch trays before and after they ate. They repeated the experiment twice: once in the spring of 2012 before the USDA requirement was in place and then again the following year when it was in full effect.
Unsurprisingly, they found that when mandated to do so, students put 29 percent more fruits and vegetables on their plates. But kids were not actually eating the healthy adornments: consumption dropped 13 percent and food waste increased by 56 percent after the USDA requirement.
The findings come one month before Congress is set to vote on whether to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which in part provides funding for federal school lunches.
Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation, said while the study is limited in scope, it confirms reports from school officials and students that “there’s tons of plate waste.”
“Congress only needs to pay attention to what school officials and students are saying to know that the new standards are a disaster,” he said. “This is really an issue of whether the federal government and its prescriptive one size fits all approach is better than respecting local government and parents.”
Despite the study’s findings, Amin said she believes the guidelines will ultimately improve children’s nutrition.
“Change takes time. This really rocks the school nutrition world. We have to have patience with this and not give up hope yet,” she said.