WASHINGTON - Children in schools with vending machine and a la carte lunch options do exactly as parents and nutritionists feared when the “competitive foods” idea first took root in cafeterias around the country.
Children eat fewer fruits and vegetables and more junk food and other high-fat/high-calorie fare, one of the first studies on the topic reported yesterday.
Published by the American Public Health Association, based here, the study focused on sweeping changes that hit school lunch menus since the 1990s. It was done by researchers at the University of Minnesota school of public health in Minneapolis.
Earlier generations of students brought lunch from home, or ate a government-regulated menu from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program. School lunch program menus must meet federal nutritional guidelines.
Schools, however, began to introduce “competitive foods,” sold a la carte in individual servings from the lunch counter or from vending machines. No nutritional guidelines apply.
National studies have shown that deregulated fare usually is heavy on high-fat, high-calorie foods like burgers, pizza, fries, cookies, cake, and sweetened soft drinks.
The Minnesota researchers, led by Dr. Martha Y. Kubik, studied the new cuisine's impact on students' consumption of fruits, vegetables, and saturated fat.
“Our results suggest that the primarily high-fat snacks and calorie-dense beverages offered and sold to students via al la carte programs are displacing fruits and vegetables in the diets of young teens and contributing to total saturated fat intakes that exceed recommended levels,” Dr. Kubik said.
Concerned parents and nutritionists always feared the children would quickly forsake healthier fare for burgers, fries, and soda pop if given the chance in school. Dr. Kubik said her study is among the first to offer scientific proof.
Researchers studied adolescent eating habits in 16 Minneapolis schools, by asking student to recall meals and by actually watching in cafeterias.
Students in schools with no “competitive foods” ate a lunch that approached or met good nutrition standards. Those in schools with a al carte service and vending machines went for the junk foods.
Dr. Kubik cited an urgent need to re-evaluate competitive foods programs before they further crowd out the healthier fare offered in traditional school lunch program menus.
That's a distinct possibility, she added, noting that school food services are becoming more dependent on income from a la carte and vending machine sales.
“Interestingly, this metamorphosis in the school environment has occurred during a time when deliberate national effort has been expended to improve the nutritional health of the U.S. population,” Dr. Kubik noted.
Some of the efforts focus on teen obesity, which affects about 4 per cent of adolescents aged 12-19 today - almost one-third more than a decade ago.