Children in the U.S. are eating poorly and not getting enough physical activity, and this is contributing to higher rates of childhood obesity and related health issues.
To help stem this problem, in 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation gave a green light to the USDA to update, for the first time in 30 years, the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The new standards require that every lunch include a fruit and a vegetable; emphasize whole grains (with a move to all whole grains by next year); feature an age-appropriate calorie limit; and offer low-fat or fat-free milk.
Recently, news coverage critical of the program got some attention, specifically these stories from CBS and AP found here and here. The stories, which were not entirely accurate, indicated that schools were opting out of the NSLP because the kids didn’t like the food and weren’t eating it.
One line in the CBS story that caught my attention came from a Laguna Beach nutrition director named Debra Appel talking about the new school lunches:
“It’s not the chicken nuggets, it’s not the popcorn chicken, it’s not the corn dogs and stuff that the kids really like”.
Apparently CBS misrepresented what Appel said, but it’s still an idea I’ve seen time and time again whenever someone proposes improving the nutritional quality of food that’s marketed to children, food in schools, or kids’ meals in fast food restaurants.
Somehow an idea has taken hold that kids will simply not eat healthy food.
I present here a rebuttal to this notion, in three parts:
Part 1: It is not true that kids will not eat healthy food.
Once upon a time, there was no such thing as chicken nuggets, Lunchables, or Trix cereal. In those days, there were children, and they did in fact eat. The food they ate was not cut into fun shapes, it did not come with a toy, nor did it come with its own cartoon spokesperson.
When a lot of those kids were young, there were a lot of things they did not like to eat. This was actually a good thing, because there also was no such thing as day care or school, and the kids were not being watched by a parent or guardian every minute of every day. Just like little kids today, these old-timey kids would shove any thing they could fit in their hands into their mouths—pebbles, bugs, plants, etc. Some of these things would be poisonous. Luckily, because many poisons are bitter, and the kids’ selective palate would reject the poisons, they’d spit them out, and the children would survive. Centuries later, scientists would call this phenomenon neophobia and recognize it a useful survival adaptation.
Eventually, as the kids got older, and as they were exposed to more and more bitter but edible foods by their parents, their palates relaxed, and they learned to like a variety of edible things. Their neophobia was reduced as they learned that more foods were safe.
Part 2: If kids won’t eat healthy foods, that is the sign of a serious problem, and we should do something about it.
Obviously, kids today have been raised in a different environment than their pre-consumer economy predecessors. There certainly have been a lot of kids that haven't liked the new changes to their school meals, and not unexpectedly.
A number of studies show that neophobia can be unlearned through exposure to a variety of novel foods, even just visual exposure. However, in the current food environment, many children are offered, or have an option to seek out, hyper-palatable, energy dense, nutritionally lacking foods. This lack of exposure to a variety of novel foods keeps their level of pickiness high. Picky eating is (generally) not an inherent trait, they are simply responding naturally to an environment that has never challenged their palate.
I spoke about this with Kathryn Henderson, PhD, Director of School and Community Initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity:
“Sure, it’s going to take some time for these lunches to gain wide acceptance. The things that have been taken out of them are the things we have been trained to like . . . I hear people say ‘Well the kids don’t like this, we should give them something else.’ The kids don’t like math, either. I know food is not the same as math, but I find it interesting that we have a different approach to making decisions about what’s good for kids in the classroom than we do in the cafeteria.”
With the new standards, we’re finally taking a step towards rectifying that difference. Henderson pointed out that before the update to the NSLP guidelines, we were teaching kids that they should eat healthfully in school nutrition classes, then turning around and serving them french fries and chicken nuggets the same day. The previous lack of standards undermined parents’ efforts as well: “It doesn’t support parents [who want to teach their kids about healthy eating] to encourage kids to want ‘kid foods.’” She said.
And that, the idea of “kid foods” versus “adult foods,” is the crux of this issue. Researchers in Britain and Canada conducted focus groups to understand children’s perception of food. They identified a distinct “kids’ food culture.” Children tended to understand that “kid food” was fun and exciting, tended to be processed, high in sugar, or in many of the subjects’ own words: “Junk food!”
This may seem obvious to many of us. Why would we need a study to tell us that kids like junk food? But this is actually a really weird thing. As the authors point out:
“There is no reason for children to understand an apple, steak, or packaged food as uniquely earmarked for a child or an adult. The reason is cultural, and recent, and powerfully driven by marketers and the food industry.”
“We’ve created this expectation that this is what kids eat.” Said Henderson. “Kids used to eat what adults ate. . . . Sure, kids like fun things, but now we have this expectation that meals should be entertainment. It’s fine to do that sometimes, but if it always needs to be that way you’re setting an expectation and then a normal meal is a harder sell.”
Part 3: If it’s a serious problem, then we should do something about it, and if we are going to do something about it, school lunch is a great place to start.
It is difficult to test the efficacy of the new nutrition standards at this early stage. There has only been one school year in which they have been in place. However, the USDA looked at data from 257 schools in 2005, some of which were already serving lunches that met the 2012 guidelines. They found that students who were offered amounts of fruits and vegetables that met the 2012 standards ate more of both than students who were not. Granted, there was a lot of uneaten food in both groups, but it’s a start.
We know that continuing to offer kids healthy foods can increase their acceptance and even preference of those foods. Perhaps through the updated NSLP, a lot of kids will be exposed to healthy foods that they might otherwise have never seen. Children will certainly be exposed to more healthy food than they were before the new standards were in place.
In the AP and CBS stories we saw coverage of kids not liking healthy food. The tone of the stories was clearly critical of the healthier guidelines. The normalization of “nuggets, popcorn chicken, and hotdogs” should be a story. The headline should be: “Kids won’t eat their vegetables anymore!” Instead of: ”The government wants kids to eat their grody vegetables!”
Using the school lunches as a tool to increase children's exposure to a variety of healthy foods in reasonable portions is a wonderful opportunity to change our culture of food. Maybe next year the headline will be:
“31 million kids ate their vegetables.”
To learn more about the stories that prompted this post you should read Dana Woldow’s Piece, about the CBS and AP coverage here.
You should also read this very informative story in TIME from Alexandra Sifferlin about some of the financial workings of the NSLP here.
Birch, L. L. (1999). Development of Food Preferences. Annual Review of Nutrition, 19(1), 41–62.
Cornwell, T. B., & McAlister, A. R. (2011). Alternative thinking about starting points of obesity. Development of child taste preferences. Appetite, 56(2), 428–439.
Elliott, C. (2011). “It’s junk food and chicken nuggets”: Children’s perspectives on “kids” food’ and the question of food classification. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 10(3), 133–140.
Lakkakula, A., Geaghan, J., Zanovec, M., Pierce, S., & Tuuri, G. (2010). Repeated taste exposure increases liking for vegetables by low-income elementary school children. Appetite, 55(2), 226–231.
Real Kids Don’t Eat Quiche: What Food Means to Children. Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 12(4), 417–436.
Newman, C. (2013). Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by School Lunch Participants. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/ersDownloadHandler.ashx?file=/media/1179320/err154.pdf
Photos by Stephen Ausmus, USDA Agricultural Research Service, and by the author.