We have more or less adjusted to the changes in our school breakfast/lunch program. Our students know that fruits and vegetables will be on their tray. They know they can’t get seconds of French fries or chicken nuggets. They know they can’t drink juice at lunch time. Some other rules and regulations are a little more complicated and even the teachers still have to ask for clarification. Some menu options still make no sense to me. In what universe is a corn dog a healthy food? Why do we still serve gigantic cinnamon buns? But no one asked my opinion before embarking on this journey. And no one pays attention to the concerns of a fat woman, even if she has learned some lessons the hard way.
What HAS caught the attention of everyone, from custodians taking out the trash, to teachers monitoring mealtimes, to administrators concerned with cost, is that children are ignoring much of what is on their plates, and opting to be hungry rather than healthy. You can put as many fruits and vegetables on a tray as you like, but you can’t force a kid who has been raised on meat and potatoes to eat something green!
So a team from the Texas A & M AgriLife Research and the Institute for Obesity at Texas & M University has embarked on a study that will tell us how much food school children are wasting. They are currently doing their research in elementary schools in Bryan and Dallas and the results should be available next month. Ironically it is funded by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (who knew we even had one of those?) and we can probably expect just a bit of bias toward adding more potato dishes to the menu, but my own observations tell me that my students would agree.
At first I was a bit worried about the money spent on such a project. As I told my colleagues, we could easily tell the researchers what children are throwing away, and save them some money. But of course they want things to be exact and they want data that can be calculated and compared. So they are paying A & M students to be waste watchers at the campuses. College kids always need more money! And they have very specific guidelines to follow. I can’t even explain the parameters of the study without notes. But one of the questions to be answered is “Do students generally eat more on the days when potatoes are served?”
Dr. Murano, director of the Obesity Institute, has already made some general observations about lunch:
“A percentage of students will return food trays after lunch with very little eaten – milk carton unopened, fruit and vegetables untouched, a lot of food is wasted,” he said. “Anecdotally comparing fruit and vegetable consumption (not a focus of our project), it appears fruit is much more popular than vegetables. Also, students seem much more likely to choose two fruits as sides rather than two vegetables. And when potato products are served (mashed potatoes, potato wedges, tater tots, etc), just about every student chooses the vegetable.”
Okay, let’s look at the reasons behind this. And let me just say that after working with pre-K and Kindergarten students for forty years I AM an expert on children and their food preferences.
- Children want to eat things that they KNOW, from their own experience, taste GOOD.
- They are totally against anything perceived by looks, smell, or reputation to be “YUCKY!”
- They are motivated by experience to prefer any food that can be covered with or dipped in ketchup.
- Most three-year-olds in our culture already prefer the taste of sugar, salt, and fat over anything else.
In other words, the school is battling 3 to 5 years of home training in the consumption of sugar (soda, doughnuts, ice cream, cookies, candy), salt (McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC) and fat (same list). These children are not eating fruits and vegetables at home. (Even if they are, the dishes are typically cooked and served in a different way than they are at school.) They are certainly not eating them in restaurants or fast food places. And they are not going to be agreeable to trying something that looks and smells totally foreign to them. We have parents who are opting to send their children to school with breakfast or lunch in a bag, and I can tell you for a fact that what is in the bag is NOT healthy. So it may take years of education and retraining to fully implement a successful healthy food program.
Dr. Murano says, “In any research scenario where it is found that healthy food items are being wasted, strategies must be developed and implemented to increase consumption. These may include conducting taste tests, providing nutrition education and implementing successful health promotion interventions.”
I await the results of the study, but I think I can make some pretty good predictions.