With one out of every three children in the United States now considered overweight or obese, few would argue that the nation’s kids need to eat more healthfully. What experts might dispute, however, is how best to accomplish that objective, with school lunch programs and vending machine snack sales playing particularly important parts in the discussion.New U.S. Dept. of Agriculture standards will require school lunch programs to offer both fruits and vegetables daily.

In January, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture released new standards for school meals. Part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed into law in 2010, the updated nutrition standards will be phased in over a three-year period starting in school year 2012–2013. The new standards will require that schools include both fruits and vegetables on the daily menu, increase the availability of foods rich in whole grains, and offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties. Calories in school meals will be based on the age of the children being served in order to ensure proper portion size, and the focus on reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium will be increased.

But just how beneficial will the tighter restrictions on what can be served in school lunches really be to students? David Just and Brian Wansink, professors at Cornell University and Co-directors of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, have some reservations. In an op-ed piece on school nutrition that appeared last month in the Los Angeles Times, Just and Wansink maintain that giving kids the opportunity to make food choices is a better path to helping them eat more healthfully.

The Cornell center’s Smarter Lunchrooms project conducts research to determine how cost-effective, easy-to-implement changes in school lunchrooms can encourage kids to make healthier food choices. The Smarter Lunchrooms tagline is “food’s not nutrition until it’s eaten.”

In their piece, Just and Wansink cite Cornell research showing that when kids are asked to choose either carrots or celery, 89% will choose and eat carrots. However, if they are given carrots without a choice, only 69% will eat them. “Instead of taking away choice, a better solution is to guide a child’s choice,” they write.

They point out that under the USDA’s new nutrition standards, “some traditional lunchroom favorites such as 2% white milk will be eliminated.” According to the authors, “The federal government should think twice about this approach. … Trying to teach students to eat more healthful foods by removing other choices can backfire. When children (or even adults) feel restricted or forced into a decision, they naturally rebel.”

Interestingly, study findings released around the same time that the new USDA school meal standards were announced also raise some questions about the benefits of restricting food options in schools. In this case, the focus is on the sale of junk foods or “competitive foods” such as soft drinks, candy bars, and chips to middle school students (grades five through eight).

Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University, who tracked the body mass index of nearly 20,000 students from fifth grade through eighth grade, reported that there was no correlation between weight gain in this time period and the children’s exposure to competitive food sales.

The authors compared statistics among students who spent all four years in schools where junk food sales were banned, those who attended schools where it was permitted, and those who spent part of the time in each of the two environments.

The study findings were published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Sociology of Education. According to the article abstract, the researchers found “that children’s weight gain between fifth and eighth grade was not associated with the introduction or duration of exposure to competitive food sales in middle school.” In addition, they reported that the relationship between competitive foods and weight gain did not vary significantly by gender, race/ethnicity, or family socioeconomic status.

The topic of school feeding programs will be among a long list of topics addressed during the course of IFT’s Wellness 12 conference to be held March 28–29, 2012, in Rosemont, Ill. For more information, visit www.ift.org/wellness.