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Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste

      Background

      The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently made substantial changes to the school meal standards. The media and public outcry have suggested that this has led to substantially more food waste.

      Purpose

      School meal selection, consumption, and waste were assessed before and after implementation of the new school meal standards.

      Methods

      Plate waste data were collected in four schools in an urban, low-income school district. Logistic regression and mixed-model ANOVA were used to estimate the differences in selection and consumption of school meals before (fall 2011) and after implementation (fall 2012) of the new standards among 1030 elementary and middle school children. Analyses were conducted in 2013.

      Results

      After the new standards were implemented, fruit selection increased by 23.0% and entrée and vegetable selection remained unchanged. Additionally, post-implementation entrée consumption increased by 15.6%, vegetable consumption increased by 16.2%, and fruit consumption remained the same. Milk selection and consumption decreased owing to an unrelated milk policy change.

      Conclusions

      Although food waste levels were substantial both pre- and post-implementation, the new guidelines have positively affected school meal selection and consumption. Despite the increased vegetable portion size requirement, consumption increased and led to significantly more cups of vegetables consumed. Significantly more students selected a fruit, whereas the overall percentage of fruit consumed remained the same, resulting in more students consuming fruits. Contrary to media reports, these results suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality. Legislation to weaken the standards is not warranted.
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