Background: The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required the USDA to update the nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program. New policies were implemented in the 2012-2013 school year. These changes were followed by anecdotal reports of increased food waste. Empirical research is needed to reliably measure student intake and plate waste before and after this policy change.
Methods: Food consumption and waste was collected annually from a cohort of middle school students in 12 schools in an urban, low-income school district before (spring 2012) and after (spring 2013 and 2014) policy changes. Generalized linear regression was used to compare pre- versus postpolicy selection and consumption of entrées, fruits, vegetables, and milk.
Results: Comparing 2012 to 2014, the percentage of students choosing fruit significantly increased from 54% to 66% and fruit consumption remained high at 74%. Student selection of fruit increased by 9% for each additional type of fruit offered with the meal. The proportion of students who chose a vegetable dropped from 68% to 52%, but students selecting vegetables ate nearly 20% more of them, effectively lowering vegetable waste. Entrée consumption increased significantly from 71% to 84%, thereby also decreasing waste.
Conclusions: Students responded positively to the new lunches. They consumed more fruit, threw away less of the entrees and vegetables, and consumed the same amount of milk. Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias.