To nourish children so that learning can happen, federal lunch programs offer meals to students across the country every single day. However, many students remain deficient in their food consumption patterns and end up wasting mass quantities of these subsidized meals. Serebrennikov and colleagues of Purdue University sought to evaluate the effectiveness of a classroom intervention aimed at bolstering healthy food selection and reducing plate waste in school lunch rooms. The nutrition education intervention aims to improve student knowledge surrounding the benefits of fruit and vegetable intake. Through bi-weekly lessons that run 15 minutes each, students are guided through activities aligned with science and health teaching standards that help to define healthy eating, why it’s important, and how to do it.
Through a randomized control trial implemented in ten second grade classes from three public schools in a Midwestern state, 62 students (5 classes) who received the nutrition education intervention served as a treatment group and 36 students (5 classes) who did not receive the nutrition curriculum served as a control group. While all students in the class participated in the intervention, data was collected on students who had returned parental consent form, and were present at school and eating school lunch during data collection visits. During the intervention, a validated digital photography method was used to collect bi-weekly lunchroom data for all students in the sample to determine the amount of fruits and vegetables selected for lunch by students and the amount of fruits and vegetables thrown away by students after lunch time. The authors recognize that the program duration, at six weeks, may be too short of a time to elicit change in eating habits. This shortcoming, however, does not override the need to evaluate existing strategies for supporting healthy eating in schools and reducing waste. The researchers found that
- No significant difference in lunchroom habits existed between the treatment and control groups;
- Those who received treatment continued to choose the same amount of fruits and vegetables and also continued to waste the same amount of food.
The authors note the significance of such a finding, indicating that school interventions aimed at stopping food waste and motivating healthy eating must go beyond nutritional education such as the well-established Health Belief Model. Instead, the authors recommend that schools consider combining nutrition lessons with experiential activities, including tastings, cooking programs, as well as more direct incentive programs for choosing fruits and vegetables and actually eating them.