Amid the ongoing state push for healthy foods for school children, a new review has found that students eat more fruits and vegetables when they attend schools that participate in the federal Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program. What’s more, the students are enthusiastic about what they are eating: 97 percent of students surveyed at participating schools wanted the apples, oranges, carrots, bananas, broccoli and jicama to continue.
Students at elementary schools that participate in the federal program, which funded the purchase of $11 million in fruits and vegetables at 343 elementary schools in California in 2012-13, eat about one-third of a cup more fruits and vegetables a day, compared to their peers at non-participating schools. The data is part of an evaluation of the eating habits of about 4,700 students in 214 elementary schools nationally, including California, by the Food and Nutrition Service of the US Department of Agriculture.
The students in participating schools consumed more carbohydrates, beta carotene, vitamins A and C, and fiber than nonparticipating students.
“Some of the kids may not have seen a kiwi before – it’s fuzzy on the outside and green like an alien on the inside,” said David Hazeleaf, who manages the federal program in California at the California Department of Education. “But they try it, and they like it.”
The increase in consumption is a measure of validation for the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, which was introduced in 2002 to entice students to pick up something colorful, leafy, green and fresh-grown as a between-meal snack. The program calls for the fruits and vegetables to be served during the school day between meals, which means at morning or afternoon recess, or in the classroom. Schools apply to be part of the program and receive about $60 per student; schools with high percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch are the focus.
While California is considered a leader in healthy school lunches, in part because of its ban on trans fats in school cafeterias and its emphasis on fresh produce, the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program is another way to instill good eating habits. And the recent review suggests that the program has found a successful model for making healthy foods appealing to students, an issue many school districts have found to be a challenge.
According to the report, students in participating schools took a piece of fruit 83 percent of the time it was offered and took a vegetable 63 percent of the time it was offered. Of those students, 60 percent consumed the entire fruit and 33 percent consumed the entire vegetable.
The Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program model has three key features: the food is offered casually, frequently and as a choice.
“The beauty of it is, it’s done during recess, it’s informal, the kids talk to each other about what’s available, and it’s grab and go,” said Jose Alvarado, food services director for Fresno Unified School District, which is the largest participant in the federal program in the state. Every morning during recess at 45 elementary schools in the Fresno district, small red wagons carrying packets of fresh honeydew chunks, orange wedges, apple slices, jicama with lemon, and carrot sticks are rolled onto the playground.
“The kids say ‘Here comes – not the ice cream truck – but the fresh fruits and vegetables wagon,'” Alvarado said.
The element of choice is extremely important in food selection, particularly for children, said Adam Brumberg, deputy director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, which has studied ways to encourage students to eat healthy foods at school. “It’s a basic psychological principle,” he said. “We don’t like to be told what to do.”
Another factor that may increase the popularity of fruits and vegetables, Brumberg said, is the frequency of the offering. The majority of schools surveyed offered the fruits and vegetables three to five times a week, exceeding the USDA recommendation to offer the items two or more times a week.
“Kids are primed by seeing the fruit,” Brumberg said. “We’re more likely to sample what’s familiar.”
Once a few students start enjoying fruits and vegetables, others often follow. “There’s an element of social contagion,” Brumberg said. Adults also play a role in demystifying persimmons or asparagus by taking a bite in front of the students.
Cathy Tang, director of nutrition services at the Lynwood Unified School District, did just that with persimmons this year. “If they’re not familiar with something, I’ll go to the school site and eat in front of the students and show them what’s inside the fruit,” she said. “I tell them it’s very sweet, and they’ll eat it.”
Nine elementary schools in the Lynwood district are participating in the federal program for the first time this year. The fruits and vegetables are laid out on trays in the cafeteria, and students pick up what they want as they head out to recess.
“Amazingly, the young kids will take broccoli,” Tang said, “and they go crazy for jicama.”
Jane Meredith Adams covers student wellness. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her at Twitter.com/JaneAdams.