School Lunch Crisis? No. Comparing Apples to Oranges.

126698126_bff64009d1_o It’s amazing what a difference 2 tablespoons can make. That’s all it took for Obama haters to start spewing their venom at school meals last week. Two tablespoons … in 2 schools … reported by 1 study … and, if you read reactions from Obama critics, you’d swear the apocalypse was upon us.

The recent study came from the University of Vermont, which reported a 56% increase in fruit/vegetable waste – equivalent to 2 tablespoons, as reported by the authors – after healthier school meal standards were implemented in 2012-2013. Obama haters have cast the study as a Nanny State symbol of the unbridled catastrophe that ensues when you serve healthy food.

Others have accurately pointed out that studies from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity came to vastly different conclusions about school lunch standards. My point isn’t to rip the Vermont study and say the other 2 studies were better. My point is that this apparent discrepancy between studies illustrates a basic fact about food policy:

Context is everything.

Policy studies are rarely as contradictory as they sound. We’re eager to boil studies down to sound bytes, fancy graphics, or 140 characters. But the unsexy reality almost always lies in the details. The question of whether policies “work” depends on who, what, where, when, and how they were implemented.

Honestly, other than being about school lunches, the 3 studies had little in common with each other.

Let’s start with the basics – demographics. Three major differences stood out:

  • Sample size. The Vermont study had 2 schools, Harvard had 4, and the Rudd Center had 12. Twelve schools may not sound like much, but it’s a small island nation when you’re going to the lengths that each study did to collect quality data.
  • Grade level. The Vermont study included elementary schools, whereas Harvard included middle and elementary schools, and the Rudd Center included middle schools. Does that make healthy food less important for younger kids? I doubt many parents would say elementary school children should be left to make their own decisions.
  • Income. Schools in the Vermont study were relatively higher income. They were hardly rich – 40-60% of students in the 2 schools were eligible for free/reduced-price lunches – but that was much lower than the other two studies (80-85%).

The 3rd difference is crucial because the National School Lunch Program is designed to serve students from low-income households. These results reinforce a previous study that found that new standards were received better in low-income areas. Collectively, results suggest that healthier school meals are successfully hitting their target audience.

Demographics alone could explain the difference in results. That’s before you start digging into the details on how different studies quantified change.

About that 56% …


Why numbers don’t speak for themselves

I spoke to Dr. Marlene Schwartz, the Director of the Rudd Center and lead author of their study, and she summed it up best: “Comparing across studies, it’s very important to make sure you’re comparing the same things. Data in the Vermont study were presented very differently from how data were presented in the other 2 studies.”

6051367657_9e6ab643c3_oThe authors of the Vermont study compared the amount of fruits/vegetables that were wasted after school lunch standards were changed. Waste went up because more was served, but that doesn’t mean students rejected new foods more. Conversely, the other 2 studies measured the percent of fruits/vegetables that were wasted, which is a better indicator of whether students accepted new foods. Both studies found that students consumed a higher percentage of vegetables.

If researchers in Vermont had measured change in waste in the same way as the other 2 studies, the change would’ve been considerably smaller – from 36% waste in 2012 to 44% waste in 2013. Students were not rejecting fruits/vegetables 56% more than before.

School food waste is still a problem throughout the country. But to suggest that Michelle Obama caused the problem, as political critics have, is wildly inaccurate.

Is the Vermont study wrong? No. I’m only pointing out the countless differences between it versus the long list of studies that suggested healthier school meal standards were effective. Last week’s CDC study adds to that list.

I’ll wrap up by emphasizing one other difference. Of all the studies that I’ve listed, the School Nutrition Association only chose to publicize one of them. The SNA has poured cold water on virtually every encouraging school lunch study in the past 2 years, but they were happy to tweet about those 2 schools in Vermont.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 8.17.39 AM

All I can say is … if you still think that the SNA is doing all it can to promote healthy meals for kids, then we need to have a talk about Santa Claus.

(For an additional perspective on the University of Vermont study, including a reaction by Hunger Free Vermont, I recommend reading Bettina Elias Siegel’s post.)

(Image Source: Flickr/Mike under this license and Flickr/Bart under this license; no changes were made)


DAN_0114_croppedI am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. This is my personal blog; any views or opinions expressed do not represent the University of Texas (or anyone else with power.) 

My research has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. You can view my website, drdantaber.com, or follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest obscure vacation destination.

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