More than $5 million in new grants will go to helping schools use new training that encourages children to make healthier choices in the lunchroom, USDA announced Wednesday.
The grants will help schools implement Smarter Lunchrooms strategies, which apply practical, research-based principles and approaches that have been proven effective at creating an environment that encourages kids to make healthy choices and decrease plate waste.
"Strategies like Smarter Lunchrooms give schools simple, actionable, low-cost steps that help make sure that the healthy food on kids' plates ends up in their stomachs," Vilsack commented in a press statement.
Smarter Lunchrooms was developed by Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs with funding from the USDA and others. It uses environmental cues – like structuring choices in the lunch line so that healthy foods are easiest for students to access and encouraging conversation with lunchroom staff – to boost consumption of healthier foods. The strategy also involves creatively naming foods or meals to make them more appealing to children.
For example, researchers found that changing the placement of where fruit is displayed in the lunch line led to a doubling of sales. Similarly, creative naming and display of vegetables increased selection by 40% to 70%.
The grants are being released as part of USDA's Team Nutrition initiative, designed to support state-level child nutrition programs through training and technical assistance.
The Team Nutrition Training Grants for fiscal year 2014 will require state agency grantees to use the BEN Center's Self-Assessment Score Card to encourage schools in the National School Lunch Program to use Smarter Lunchrooms techniques and increase student choice of quality items.
These funds may also be used to assist the state agency in providing training and technical assistance to school staff in creating Smarter Lunchrooms.
Meeting new requirements
While the USDA said Wednesday that 90% of schools are successfully meeting new meal nutrition standards – serving meals with more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy, and less sodium and fat, for example – Cornell researchers confirm that children aren't motivated to eat the new foods, leading to waste.
"Our estimates are that the new program costs about $1.75 for every 10 kids per day, with an extra one to two kids per 10 eating a fruit or vegetable and an extra five kids throwing a fruit or vegetable away," says David Just, a behavioral economist and co-director of the BEN Center.
He explains that instead, if you pay each child five cents for eating a fruit or vegetable, the waste will be reduced. Those two in 10 kids, he said, would eat for only 45 cents per 10 kids per day.
"I'm not suggesting we start paying kids to eat, but this demonstrates how important motivation is relative to just availability," he said.
Just noted that the BEN Center's Smarter Lunchroom techniques provide simple and inexpensive changes in the lunchroom that lead kids to choose healthier foods on their own. The techniques can be even more effective when paired with the new school lunch, reducing waste to the pre-change levels.
"That means we can get an extra five in 10 to eat a fruit or vegetable at nearly no additional cost when we use simple behavioral economics to motivate kids to eat," he said.
Getting kids to eat the healthier foods as suggested by the USDA hasn't been an easy fight, as evidenced by a February Government Accountability Office report.
"Almost all states reported through GAO's national survey that obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging during school year 2012-2013, which likely affected participation in the [school lunch] program," a GAO summary said.
Plate waste, GAO said, was an issue. "Most states reported that [school food authorities] faced challenges with addressing plate waste—or foods thrown away rather than consumed by students—and managing food costs, as well as planning menus and obtaining foods that complied with portion size and calorie requirements," the report found.
While GAO said many SFA's believe these areas will become less challenging over time, its report also suggests that USDA efforts to improve oversight and management of the changes are helping in some areas.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who opposes the new regulations, said the changes are a one-size-fits-all approach that should provide schools with more flexibility in implementing the requirements.
In November, she released a new plan that she said would reduce the mandates and ease costs for school districts.
Read more on school lunch regulations:
GAO Review Calls For Modification of School Lunch Standards
Vilsack Announces Flexibility In School Lunch Program
Criticism of New USDA School Lunch Standards Continues
#AskUSDA Tackles New School Nutrition Requirements
Weighing In On School Lunches
Improvements to School Meals Announced