Expert Commentary

Impact of the new USDA school meal standards on food selection, consumption and waste

2014 study the Harvard School of Public Health on how the new school food standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have affected students' meal choices and behavior.

School lunch, Washington-Lee High School (

School lunches don’t generally get a lot of love. Students often accuse the food of being bland and the portions skimpy, while nutritionists say the levels of fat are too high and real nutrition scarce. School districts don’t have it any easier, as they’re caught between rising costs, federal standards, and the need to keep students happy — a tricky proposition at best, as all parents know.

Upsetting an already unstable apple cart, in 2010 the U.S. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. One of the goals of the legislation is to help reduce soaring rates of childhood obesity — which takes hold early in life, studies have shown — through free-lunch programs and new nutrition standards for schools, including more fruits and vegetables and less meat and grains. When the standards went into effect for the 2011-2012 school year, students were less than enthusiastic, and the USDA responded by allowing more meat and grains in school lunches. Still, research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that participation in the National School Lunch Program declined 3.7%, despite a jump in the number of students receiving free meals. Increased prices for those who paid for lunches played a role, but so did the content changes.

Of significant concern was the notion of waste, an escalating problem in the United States and the world: What would the point be of putting more-nutritious food on students’ plates if they didn’t eat it? Some local and state authorities surveyed by the GAO indicated waste had risen after the new standards went into effect, but it wasn’t systematically measured. To address this question, a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption and Waste,” looks at the impact of the new regulations on students’ food choices and consumption rates.

The researchers — Juliana F.W. Cohen, Scott Richardson, Ellen Parker, Paul J. Catalano and Eric B. Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health — collected data at four schools in an urban, low-income district in Massachusetts. The eating habits of 1,030 elementary and middle-school children were examined before and after implementation of the new standards, including the items they chose and those that were eaten or discarded.

The study’s findings include:

  • After the new standards were implemented, the proportion of entrées consumed rose from 72.3% to 87.9%, an increase of 15.6 percentage points.
  • The proportion of students selecting fruit increased from 52.7% to 75.7%, a jump of 23 percentage points. The percentage of fruit eaten by students who selected it remained unchanged, but the overall increase in its selection led to a significant rise in overall consumption.
  • While the percentage of students selecting vegetables didn’t change, portion consumption increased from 24.9% to 41.1%, a rise of 16.2 percentage points. “Despite the increased vegetable portion size requirement [of the new USDA rules], consumption increased and led to significantly more cups of vegetables consumed.”
  • Milk selection and consumption decreased, but the fall was due to an unrelated change in school milk policy.
  • Levels of food waste remain high, even if the new nutrition standards did not cause them to increase. Students discarded approximately 60% to 75% of the vegetables and 40% of the fruits they selected.

“Although food waste levels were substantial both pre- and post-implementation, the new guidelines have positively affected school meal selection and consumption,” the researchers conclude. “Contrary to media reports, these results suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality.” Consequently, they state that weakening of the new standards is not warranted, and noted that school staff would benefit from additional assistance in implementing the menu changes and engaging with students and parents.

Related research: A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, “Demand for Whole-Grain Bread Before and After the Release of Dietary Guidelines,” explores the impact of governmental dietary targets on consumer behavior. Comparing consumption before and after the release of the 2005 USDA guidelines, which recommended that recommended half of all grains consumed be whole grains, refined-grain breads fell by 13% while multigrain and whole-grain breads rose by 3% and 70%, respectively. The authors theorize that such guidelines can succeed when “the change required to follow recommendations is small, and supply-side factors are aligned to facilitate consumers’ response.”

Keywords: consumer affairs, obesity, nutrition, food waste, @leightonwalter, @journoresource

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