GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Researchers from the University of Florida are championing recent research that shows computer “nudges” can help students pick healthier government school lunches.
But the research doesn’t show whether students actually eat the “healthy” foods once they order it.
Researchers with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences recruited 71 Florida public school students – fifth- and sixth-graders – to participate in a study on their ordering habits for school lunches, with some ordering as usual in the lunch line and others ordering through a computer, according to SouthEastAgNet.com.
The students who ordered their lunches through the computer received “nudges” or advice on healthy foods provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program, which encourages healthy eating habits.
The “nudges” essentially alerted students to when they do not select meals with what the government deems the five components of a healthy lunch – meat or meat alternative, grain, fruit, vegetable and low-fat milk.
“Researchers found the students in the group that received nudges chose 51 percent more fruits, 29.7 percent more vegetables and 37 percent more low-fat milk than the control group,” according to the site. “The group that simply ordered online without nudges chose 27 percent more fruits, 15.8 percent more vegetables and 16.3 percent more low-fat milk than the control group.”
The findings are important because the government has been scrambling to encourage students to eat school food since imposing restrictions on calories, fat, sugar, sodium and other nutritional elements at the urging of first lady Michelle Obama in 2012.
Since that time, more than 1.2 million students have dropped out of the National School Lunch Program, including hundreds of entire schools. The changes also resulted in more than $1 billion in additional food waste from school each year.
Jaclyn Kropp, an assistant professor with the University of Florida, said “while more research is needed to determine the long-term effects of repeated nudging, there is evidence that low-cost nudges can encourage the selection of healthy items in the school lunchroom,” according to Science Daily.
What the study does not reveal, however, is whether students actually eat the food, or not.
The latest round of federal regulations on school meals requires students to take a fruit or vegetable, whether they want it or not, and school officials across the country have complained relentlessly about overflowing cafeteria garbage cans.
“We throw away a ton of food,” Canton Central School Food Service Director Ella Mae “Bluejay” Fenlong told the Watertown Daily Times last year.
“If we cut up 20 pounds of cucumbers, we guess that 17 pounds get thrown away. I’ve watched kids take their cup of vegetables or fruit they’re required to take and just throw it away.”
Experts estimate the nation’s public schools now throw away about $3.5 million in food each day, EAGnews reports.
In some schools, the problem got so bad that officials had to find a way to get rid of all the excess, so they literally gave it away to farm animals.
“It’s really whatever they don’t eat coming off their trays, so when they get up to the trash cans they will scrape it into one of our buckets that we pick up on a daily basis,” Max Wade, CEO of Galloping Grace Youth Ranch, told KRQE last April.
Wade said he collects about five tons of leftovers from area elementary schools each week.
Several pig farmers in Rhode Island are also taking advantage of the situation, hauling enough food in from area schools to feed 3,000 hogs, according to the Woonsocket Call.