The science of school lunch

Researchers test lunch trays before and after students eat to determine fruit and veggie consumption.

CHARLOTTE, Vt.—In terms of ambience, Charlotte Central's cafeteria is—well, conjure up your own elementary school lunch experience. There's more than one reason to run to recess. But on a recent visit to observe a group of researchers from UVM's Johnson Lab, the lunch ladies were serving up something more likely to be found on a restaurant menu: risotto with mushrooms and peas. It's the result of a host of programs by schools around Vermont to offer more tempting choices—with locally sourced ingredients when possible, including herbs and vegetables from the playground garden—and to get children to eat more healthfully. But is it working?

That's what Rachel Johnson, Robert L. Bickford Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences, along with her research team, is trying to find out. And they aren't alone in their concern. Since Fall 2012, USDA regulations require students across the country to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch, a good intention that might easily go to the garbage.

To get answers about what actually happens to those dressed up peas and mushrooms—or the obligatory apple next to the mac and cheese—the Johnson Lab has developed state-of-the-art digital imaging to measure consumption, a method just validated by a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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