A new study published in the journal Childhood Obesity from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut shows that children are eating healthier food at school and discarding less food since updated healthy school meal standards took effect in 2012.
The study is among the first to reliably measure student consumption of entrees, fruits, vegetables, and milk during lunch before and after the healthier standards took effect, according to the University.
"This new study adds to a growing body of scientific research that shows these standards are working," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a response to the study. "It is clear that kids are now eating healthier food and throwing less food away. This is good news for parents and teachers, who overwhelmingly support healthier meals because they know kids learn better when they have proper nutrition."
The updated standards caused concern about the amount of food that students might throw away as it upped the ante on vegetable and fruit servings.
"Some have expressed concern about the requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable," said Marlene Schwartz, the study's lead author and director of the Rudd Center, adding, "We're seeing a very positive response from students."
Researchers analyzed students' food selection, consumption, and waste before and after the updated standards were in place by photographing and weighing individual items on lunch trays, the University said.
Specifically, researchers tracked students from 12 middle schools in an urban school district for three years – from the spring of 2012 through the spring of 2014 – before the standards changed and two years after.
Key findings from the Rudd Center study include:
• More students are now choosing to add fruit to their lunch tray than they were before the updated standards went into effect (54% in 2012 to 66% in 2014).
• The percentage of the vegetables on their plates students consumed increased by nearly 20%, decreasing the amount of vegetables thrown away.
• Students consumed more of their lunch entrées (71% in 2012 vs. 84% in 2014)
Vilsack addressed the findings within the realm of Congress' past attempts to change school lunch rules.
"For Congress to meddle with doctors' recommendations and go back to less healthy meals now would not be in the best interest of our children," he said in a statement.