This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 19, 2014.
Making fruits or vegetables a mandatory part of school lunches may be getting a few more kids to eat produce, but it’s also getting a lot more kids to throw it away.
A recent study of lunchrooms at 18 elementary schools revealed that, when schools automatically put servings of a fruit or vegetables on all lunch trays, up to 70 percent of it ends up in the trash.
Last year, under new federal guidelines, schools must provide one serving of fruit or vegetables in every school lunch to get full funding for the free and reduced-price school lunch program. Researchers from Cornell and Brigham Young universities teamed up to investigate whether this tactic really made kids eat more healthfully.
They found that a few more kids did eat produce when it was given to them, but the new policy dramatically increased schools’ lunch costs and the waste in their cafeteria trashcans. When the same researchers offered kids a small incentive, such as a quarter or even a nickel or raffle ticket, as a reward for eating produce, more kids made healthy choices and schools saved money and cut trash.
“The new regulations have done a fabulous job of making fruits and vegetables available,” said David Just, the study’s co-author and a behavioral economist at Cornell, in a statement. “But, they haven’t dealt well with the problem of motivating children to eat the new foods.”
Just and his colleagues also worked on a related study showing that kids were more likely to eat fruits and vegetables at lunch if they were pre-cut instead of whole.
For every one to two children who eat fruits or vegetables under the new federal guidelines, five throw them away, the researchers said.
The percentage increase among middle school students who ate at least half an apple with lunch if the apple was sliced instead of whole. Researchers suggest whole fruit is more inconvenient to eat, especially if kids have braces, and some kids even thought they looked unattractive eating whole apples in front of others.
The daily price tag for giving a serving of fruits or vegetables to all 31.6 million children the National School Lunch Program serves nationwide. The study purports that $3.8 million of this produce is thrown away.
The amount of money researchers estimate an incentive-based fruit and vegetable program would cost each day, based on an experiment where they rewarded a child with a coin or raffle ticket for eating a serving of fruits or veggies. The percentage of produce eaters increased by 80 percent in this experiment, and trash decreased by 33 percent. The researchers say if schools allowed kids to choose whether to take produce, and then rewarded them for eating what they take, they could increase the number of kids who eat healthfully and decrease the amount of wasted produce they buy.