Federal law can’t make school kids eat their vegetables


By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES, Iowa— A federal law designed to help Iowa kids slim down is making lunchroom garbage cans heavier with government-mandated fruits and vegetables.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set new nutrition standards for school meals, including requiring each student be served half a cup of fruit or vegetables, even if students don’t want them.

HEALTHIER KIDS OR HEAVIER GARBAGE CANS? The federal government can mandate students be served more fruit and vegetables, but it can’t make the kids eat them.

Iowa has received two federal government Team Nutrition grants totaling almost $700,000 to help implement the new standards. Most of that money has been used for education, training and outreach programs.

Laurie Lawson, food service director of Spencer Community Schools, said she’s seen a definite increase in “plate waste”— the portion of edible food thrown away by students —since the new standards took effect in 2012.

And it’s all about the fruits and veggies, said Lawson, who oversees food service at the district’s three elementary, one middle and one high school.

“When you make people take things they don’t want to eat, they’re going to throw them away. Especially kids,” Lawson told Iowa Watchdog. “The students don’t have any choice. They have to take the fruit and vegetables. But you can’t make the kids eat them.”

Lawson’s experience matches those of school cafeteria administrators across the country as reported by a General Accounting Office study published earlier this year. Those administrators said the new standards had led to an increase in plate waste.

Ann Feilmann, chief of the Bureau of Nutrition and Health Services of the Iowa Department of Education, isn’t certain how much, if any, increase there has been in plate waste in the state.

There are no plate-waste studies being done in the state, and there hasn’t been national plate-waste study since 1992. A school plate-waste study published this month in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine attracted attention with its claim that the new federal standards hadn’t increased the amount of fruit and vegetables being thrown away.

But the study had a very small sample size, examining eight schools in a single Massachusetts school district.

Feilmann said she recognizes the challenge of implementing the new standards.

“We are certainly in a time of change, which is uncomfortable for some,” she told Iowa Watchdog.

Feilmann said education is key to getting students to eat more their fruit and vegetables.

“Students aren’t necessarily familiar with some of these fruit and vegetables,” she said. “The more familiar they become with them, the more likely they are to eat them.”

Feilmann concedes there is no objective measurement for whether the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is succeeding in getting students to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Lawson, president-elect of the School Nutrition Association of Iowa, said her fellow food service directors in school districts across the state report seeing increases in plate waste under the new standards.

“It’s just a shame how much is being thrown away,” she said.

Contact Paul Brennan at pbrennan@watchdog.org