Kids that are offered a range of fruits and vegetables as part of their school lunch program are more likely to consume them as part of a healthier overall diet, a new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found.

As childhood obesity and income inequality continue to rise at alarmingly fast paces, the U.S. government continues to try to plug both holes simultaneously. Most recently are 2012 standards set by the USDA, which restrict public school lunch programs from selling sugary beverages and junk food. They also encourage greater availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables. Among one group, at least, the measures seem to be working.

Initially, parents and school administrators bristled at the idea of mandating low-income students to include a serving of fruits or vegetables as part of their lunch — citing an increase in food waste as the obvious outcome. But a look at the program’s effectiveness shows those doubts were misguided, as healthy food consumption increased in terms of servings of fruits and vegetables and total entrée size.

"Many low-income students rely on school meals for up to half of their daily energy intake," lead researcher, Juliana Cohen, of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, said in a statement. "Therefore, school meals can have important implications for student health. Increased consumption of healthier foods during the school day may result in the displacement of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that many students are exposed to after leaving school grounds."

In looking at food waste data from four low-income schools in Massachusetts, the research team found that mandatory consumption upped fruit selection from 52.7 percent to 75.7 percent. Vegetable consumption also rose, from 24.9 percent to 41.1 percent, along with overall vegetable servings in a given day, from 0.13 cups/day to 0.31 cups/day.

Importantly, the team found no measurable increase in food waste, signaling the students had been eating the food they purchased. However, they did find that food waste remained a problem, as students routinely threw away 60 to 75 percent of their vegetables and 40 percent of their fruit. In other words, the kids were buying more fruit and vegetables, but not necessarily wasting less of the fruit and vegetables they were buying before the USDA intervention.

"While the new standards make important changes by requiring reimbursable school meals to have increased quantities of fruits and vegetables and more vegetable variety, this may not be sufficient," explained Cohen. "Schools must also focus on the quality and palatability of the fruits and vegetables offered and on creative methods to engage students to taste and participate in selection of menu items to decrease overall waste levels."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years. Between 1980 and 2012, adolescents aged 12-19 went from being obese 5 percent of the time to nearly 21 percent of the time. Many experts cite declining physical education programs, decreasing amounts of unstructured play, and increasing sedentary activities, such as video games and television watching.

While exercise is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, diet may be even more important, especially in low-income areas where costlier nutritious food takes a backseat to economic constraints. Tackling food waste remains a challenge for the USDA, but current measures indicate the programs in school lunches at least help achieve the goal of getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.

"Overall, the new requirements have led to improvements in student diets and have not resulted in increased food waste," concluded Cohen. "Lawmakers should not consider further weakening the school meal standards. The new school meal standards are the strongest implemented by the USDA to date, and the improved dietary intakes will likely have important health implications for children."

Source: Cohen J, Richardson S, Parker E, Catalano P, Rimm E. Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2014.