VCU study: Do kids eat or trash healthy lunch items?

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (C) joins students for lunch at the cafeteria of Parklawn Elementary School January 25, 2012 in Alexandria, Virginia. The first lady, accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and celebrity cook Rachael Ray visited the school to speak to students and parents about the USDA\'s new nutrition standards for school lunches. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — You can lead a kid to veggies, fruits and whole grains, but you can’t make a kid eat them.

A Virginia Commonwealth University professor is aiming to find out how much of the healthy school lunch options kids are actually eating after policy changes have led to more fruits and vegetables on school plates around the country.

“As a scientist, I wondered: How much plate waste is really happening? Are kids really throwing away the lunches?” Suzanne Mazzeo, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU, said in a news release.

“So I looked into the literature and saw that there really wasn’t a lot of data on whether kids were actually eating less or if they were just complaining about it.”

Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the school lunch policy changes under the National School Lunch Program have aimed to provide nutritionally balanced meals to kids and fight childhood obesity in the process, according to its website.

The standards require schools to provide more fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains and limit the calories, fat and sodium.

With the help of a $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Mazzeo will lead a team of researchers at two Chesterfield County, Virginia, elementary schools to examine the amount of fruits and vegetables kids are throwing away.

Researchers will stand at garbage cans to observe the first, second and third graders’ eating habits during breakfast and lunch at the schools.

“We’re focusing on the fruit and vegetable consumption, looking to see whether they ate [the fruits and vegetables], and what percentage they ate,” Mazzeo said in the release. “We anticipate that it’s going to be somewhat chaotic.”

Following the observation period, Mazzeo and the researchers will hold a “tasting intervention” in one of the schools, offering the students samples of a fruit or vegetable that will be on the cafeteria’s menu in the next week.

The goal is to give kids a taste of the food they could try because “research shows that if you have kids taste a food, then they’re more willing to actually eat it,” Mazzeo said in the release.

After the tasting interventions, researchers will again measure what kids throw away and see if the tastings make a difference.

Also, researchers will interview parents, teachers, administrators and cafeteria employees about healthy eating and expectations when it comes to promoting good food choices.

The study should help answer the debate over whether the National School Lunch Program policy changes are effective, Mazzeo said.

“We want to know whether requiring fruits and vegetables was a good change,” she said. “We are truly not sure. Because some of the research says you should give children a choice of whether they want to take the fruits and vegetables or not. And that you should do tastings, but ultimately give them the choice.”

The research will begin in the fall.

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