Mason research examines impact of salad bars in public schools
October 18, 2019 / by Mary Lee Clark
Many children don’t eat the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables each day, placing them at risk for multiple health problems and significant health disparities.
School nutrition policies can have a major impact on reducing those health disparities. The National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children in public schools, but these lunches must meet certain nutrition standards.
"They're forced to put fruit and a vegetable on their tray to make it count as a full lunch, which is being reimbursable for the schools. After that, nobody cares what they do with it,” said George Mason University researcher Lilian de Jonge.
“If they throw their healthy items straight into the trash can, that doesn't matter. It still counts for the school as a full lunch."
To tackle this problem, some schools have been exploring the idea of salad bars to give students a choice in their healthy items, instead of requiring them to participate in the "veggie of the day" option.
But the question is, will the implementation of salad bars encourage kids to make healthier choices or will it just increase plate waste?
De Jonge, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at the College of Health and Human Services, is trying to find an answer to that question by working with elementary schools in the Northern Virginia area to monitor how students eat lunch before and after the implementation of salad bars in their schools.
Here’s how it works: Student participants line up for lunch as usual, but when they reach the end of the lunch line, a Mason student researcher takes a picture of the student’s food plate. When the students are done with their meal, another picture is taken.
After the data collection is complete, the photographs are sent to the principal investigator of the study, Melanie Bean, an associate professor in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Virginia Commonwealth University, who analyses and compares the pictures against one another to determine how much of the healthy food had been eaten and how much ends up in the trash.
"We can see what they eat and what don't they eat. What are the favorites and are they actually eating the fruits and vegetables?” said de Jonge.
This process will be done at one school multiple times, both before and after the implementation of salad bars. De Jonge and her team of undergraduate students started visiting schools in January, and they have two more academic years of assessments to go.
“We can see what the children choose to begin with,” said de Jonge. “But we can also see what they eat and what they don’t eat. What are the favorites and are they actually eating the fruits and vegetables and does the salad bar increase fruit and vegetable consumption and decrease plate waste?”
De Jonge added that any student at Mason, regardless of major, is invited to participate in the research, which is on track to conclude in January 2022.
“I think it's just a great way to see what's actually going on with our school lunches,” said de Jonge.