Getting fresh fruits and vegetables onto lunch trays in public schools was only half the battle, because it turns out most kids still aren’t eating them. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studied students’ eating habits and found nearly six out of 10 won’t even touch a healthy food option on their plate.

"We have been thinking that if young children choose healthy food, they will eat it," said the study’s co-author Dr. Susan M. Gross, a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a press release. "But our research shows that is not necessarily so." Gross will present her team's findings at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting on Monday.

Researchers watched 274 kids in kindergarten, and first and second grade, in 10 different New York City public school cafeterias, and noted their food selection and eating habits. They waited to see how many 6- to 8-year-olds would choose a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, low-fat milk, and lean protein to place on their tray. Researchers took photos of each tray, which revealed all of them took a milk and whole grain, 75 percent of the kids chose a protein, 59 percent chose a vegetable, and 58 percent chose a fruit. But did they eat it?

Not really. Only 75 percent of the kids took at least a bite of their protein and 24 percent ate one bite of their vegetables. You’d think it’s the food’s palatability that’s to blame here, but the taste is not the problem as much as the environment. Researchers say the cafeteria plays a large role in whether a child eats his food or not, which comes right back down to mindless eating tricks. The noise level, supervision; how many kids were in the cafeteria that day; the length of their lunch period; and the way the food is packaged, all determined how much a child ate off from their plate.

The students were much more likely to finish all of their food if a teacher ate with them in the cafeteria, as well as when their food was cut up into smaller bites. When it was quieter the kids ate more vegetables and whole grains, and when the lunch period was longer, they ate more of their total food in general.

"As much as we are focused on menus in the school lunch program, we need to look more at our cafeteria environments, especially with our youngest children," Gross said. "We can give kids the healthiest food possible, but if they don't have time to eat it or they are distracted by how noisy the cafeteria is, they're not going to eat it. They're on their own and we need to do as much as possible to help them through that lunch period."

The selection of food is significantly better than it used to be in school cafeterias, so parents can’t hate the school for trying. It’s become a trial-and-error run for administrators and legislative initiatives to get kids eating healthier, which could ultimately decrease rates of childhood obesity.

Just a few years ago, schools would loopholes through the United States Department of Agriculture's regulations. For example, a small container of fries counted as a vegetable. Yes, they’re made out of a potato but they’re a starch that’s been fried. The fruit requirement could also be fulfilled by providing a small cup of fruit juice, which meant kids were missing out on important fiber intake. At the time, more than 90 percent of the food brought into a school cafeteria was frozen, including pizza, which counted as two servings of whole grain. The rates have dropped, but a child’s appetite for school lunches are still not where they should be, according to these new findings.

Congress is currently preparing to overhaul the Child Nutrition Act for 2015. The Act funds the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program, programs that weren’t originally welcomed by many people because mass production of healthier foods can become costly — it also requires different standards for storage, depending on the type of food. Fresh fruit, for example, goes bad quicker than chunks of fruit suspended in high fructose gelatin. It's also easier to accomodate a basket a bunch of plastic containers in storage than a basket of apples or bananas. 

Source: Gross SM, Zucker A, Biehl E, et al. Does selection of foods in the school cafeteria by 6-8 year olds translate into consumption? Results of a cafeteria observation study. The American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting. 2014.