For many people, consuming enough fruits and vegetables is a constant challenge. This can be true for a variety of reasons, including the cost, perceived lack of appeal, or inconvenience associated with these foods. Because dietary habits are often set at a young age, encouraging children to eat fruits and vegetables has long been a focus of nutrition advocates — and a growing priority as rates of childhood obesity have increased to disturbing levels.
Since last year, federal guidelines have mandated that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program provide at least one fruit or vegetable serving with every school lunch. This means, in practical terms, that 31.6 million servings of fruits and vegetables are handed on trays to schoolchildren every day. But, of course, serving fruits and vegetables is easier than getting kids to eat them. A study from last year, covered earlier this month in the San Francisco Chronicle, looked at 18 elementary-school lunch programs in an effort to find out how much of this food was eaten, and how much was simply thrown away. Researchers from Cornell and Brigham Young universities measured food waste levels at schools where fruits and vegetables were served by default, along with those at schools where taking a fruit or vegetable is not required. By comparing the amount of fruits and vegetables served with the amount thrown away at each school, the researchers estimated how much was actually consumed by students.
The researchers found that, on average, about 70% of mandatory fruit and vegetable servings were thrown away. Compared with not requiring children to take a fruit or vegetable at lunch, serving these foods to everyone did lead to more kids consuming them, but this effect was small: About 8% more fruits and vegetables were consumed as a result. Based on this rate of increased consumption and the cost of fruit and vegetable servings, the researchers found that by taking a mandatory-serving approach, it costs $1.72 to get one additional child to eat one additional fruit or vegetable serving each day.
But that’s not where the story ends. The researchers also tested strategies for incentivizing the eating of fruits and vegetables, such as offering a raffle ticket or a coin such as a nickel or quarter. They found that offering any of these incentives led, on average, to 80% more kids eating the fruit or vegetable serving, and that total food waste declined by 33%. While such an incentive program would cost about $1.1 million each day if carried out nationwide, this number is dwarfed by the $5.4 million spent each day to serve fruits and vegetables in schools — $3.8 million of which ends up in trash cans. The researchers suggested that a combination of offering an incentive program in schools, while making fruits and vegetables optional, could increase fruit and vegetable consumption and reduce waste for about the same cost as the current mandatory-serving system.
How do you view the issue of fruits and veggies in school lunches — would you support offering incentives to eat them, or does this give children the wrong message about why they should be eating healthy foods? Is any tactic worth pursuing if it encourages children to adopt a healthier diet? Can, and should, incentives be given to adults as well, such as a reverse-tax on all fruit and vegetable purchases that is applied as a discount at the cash register? Leave a comment below! (And check out DiabetesSelfManagement.com’s delicious vegetable recipes here.)