Are students really eating fruits and vegetables at lunch, or are those required healthy items winding up in the trash? On a recent visit to Charlotte Central School in Vermont a team of researchers from the University of Vermont found the lunch ladies serving selections that would more likely be served on a restaurant menue. Risotto with mushrooms and peas was on the menu that particular day, and the cafeteria uses locally sourced produce when possible, with herbs from the playground garden.
Schools in Vermont and around the country are putting programs in place that offer more tempting and healthy choices, thus getting children to eat healthier food and make healthy choices. Is this strategy working?
That’s what Rachel Johnson, Robert L. Bickford Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences, along with her research team, is trying to find out. And they aren’t alone in their concern. Since Fall 2012, USDA regulations require students across the country to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch, a good intention that might easily go to the garbage.
To get answers about what actually happens to those dressed up peas and mushrooms — or the obligatory apple next to the mac and cheese — the Johnson Lab has developed state-of-the-art digital imaging to measure consumption, a method just validated by a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The researchers, Johnson’s “army of undergraduates,” image children’s trays when they leave the line and then again when they’re finished eating. They’ve already weighed and photographed a correct portion of each fruit and vegetable item offered, as well as analyzed recipes to determine how much fruit and vegetable a serving contains.
Back at the lab, visually comparing the composite before and after photos alongside the comparison data, researchers can accurately determine consumption within two grams, a statistically valid but much less labor-intensive means of assessing dietary intake compared to the current gold standard of individually weighing portions selected before a child can eat against plate waste. The time saved allows for a much larger sample size.
“Now we’re exploring ways to employ the method,” says Johnson’s doctoral student Sarah Amin. In Charlotte she’s leading a new study to evaluate whether non-researchers — parents, teachers, community volunteers — can be trained to collect the data with equally valid results. The process involves taking the tray image at an accurate angle for later analysis, while also capturing the number on lanyards that participating children wear to track the trays.