Researchers link USDA mandate to increased cafeteria food waste.
Serving vegetables in school cafeteria line
Credit: Steve Debenport/Getty Images

Though your child might see more produce on his or her lunch tray this school year, don’t be surprised if the ultimate result is just more colorful trash cans. According to a new study from the University of Vermont, school cafeteria waste has increased 35 percent since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010, a USDA mandate that requires students to take a fruit or vegetable in their school lunch.

For the study, published in Public Health Reports, researchers documented nearly 500 trays in two Northeast elementary schools before the mandate took effect in 2012. After the guideline was implemented, researchers went back and took nearly double the observations. Digital images were taken of student trays as they approached the cashier, and again when they first passed the food disposal area.

“It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line,” lead author Sarah Amin, Ph. D., said in a statement.

In a previous study, published in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, Amin found that children preferred processed fruits and vegetables like tomato sauce or fruit juice compared to whole fruits. She recommends having pre-sliced fruits and vegetables available and serving them with dip rather than just giving them to children whole. Mixing them with other parts of the meal can also make them more palatable. Additionally she thinks as schools become saturated with students who began school when the guidelines were already in place, consumption will improve.

“An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption,” said Amin in the statement. “We can’t give up hope yet.”

For advice on how to pack a healthy lunch for a picky eater, check out our tips here.