Healthy School Lunches: Pictures On Lunch Trays Help Students Pick And Eat Their Vegetables

Getting young children to eat their servings of fruits and veggies, particularly in school, has been a long and hard struggle for parents, schools and lawmakers over the years. But a new study suggests that a quick fix could be as simple as showing kids some pictures.

In the first move of its kind in over 15 years, the government last week announced new guidelines to ensure students are given healthier options for school meals. The new standards call for more whole grains and produce as well as less sodium and fat in school meals. While the measures mark a step forward from previous years, they still compromise amid push-back from Congress to keep pizza and french fries on the menu -- counting both the tomato paste on pizza and the potatoes that make fries as vegetables.

But children might not have to be forced by the law or school to eat their fruits and vegetables. According to research published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, students who were given visual hints were more likely to choose and eat their vegetables.

University of Minnesota researchers studied an elementary school of about 800 students in Richfield, Minn., and compared student vegetable consumption on one day in February and one day in May -- both days served the same menu. On the May date, students went through the self-serve lunch line with trays that pictured carrots and green beans in tray compartments, suggesting that those are the foods that belong there.

"The students within the situation still make their own choices about what to do, so you don't bump into all this resistance when kids might feel like they're being forced to do something," Traci Mann, one of the researchers, told the Pioneer Press. She added that the images on the tray also likely "the impression that everyone is doing it."

On the day in May, the percentage of students who selected green beans increased to nearly 15 percent, from 6 percent in February. The proportion of those who took carrots jumped to 37 percent, from 12 percent on the earlier date. Subsequently, the amount of vegetables each student consumed also increased significantly.

"I think a lot of times they just need an example of what they're supposed to do," Deb LaBounty, nutrition services supervisor for Richfield Public Schools, told the Pioneer Press. "A lot of times, the battle is getting the kids to take the fruit or the vegetable."

The researchers note in their report that the cost to schools would be small -- just $3 per 100 trays -- to add photos, but the effects of the low-cost measures saw increases in vegetable consumption comparable to those seen after more costly intervention tactics like multiple classroom sessions with trained instructors or parent involvement.

Despite the notable increases, overall selection and consumption of vegetables remained low and did not yet meet government recommendations. The researchers add that the results can only be applied to asses short-term results based on the limited period of research. Further research is required to determine whether the change is simply associated with short-term increases in consumption from a perceived novelty of new pictures on trays, or if the images are generating long-term salience in students' minds.

Even with the researchers' low-cost idea, schools still face costly issues. For school districts to comply with new federal regulations that bring in fresh fruits and vegetables, they have seen a rise in prices, The New York Times reported. To add to that, school meals are often products of a complex web of corporate alliances among those in the food industry, in which schools pay high prices for third-party food processors to turn those products into unhealthy fried and fat-laden items.

As schools struggle to weigh and make decisions between high product and labor costs for fresher, healthier meals versus the lower overhead of processed but unhealthier foods, students are the ones who sacrifice. For a year, Chicago school teacher Sarah Wu secretly ate a school lunch every day and documented her experiences.

"That particular meal seemed barely recognizable as food," Wu told Good Morning America of her hot dog, tater tots and Jell-O lunch one day. "I was struck by the fact that the students I'm working with really rely on the school for so much, including potentially their best meal of the day."

Even in Los Angeles, where the schools have been noted for their progress toward healthier, more nutritious meals, schools still grapple with making those offerings more appealing.

"The healthier it gets, the more disgusting it is," student Kevin Albrecht told CBS News.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live last November, chef and media personality Jamie Oliver, who actively works to fight childhood obesity by promoting healthy school lunches and nutritional education, declared that "the food companies of America own you," adding that "These moron frozen food companies -- pizza industry, french-fry industry -- have basically bought, bribed, bullied Congress, who have completely let everyone down, into basically making it okay to feed [students] french fries every day."

Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.

A recent eport by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.

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