Small trick with great consequences: school lunch after recess boosts fruit and vegetable consumption

This almost sounds too good to be true, but a little no-cost trick can boost fruit and vegetable consumption by 54%. What do you need to do? Switch recess and school lunch. The sample is not that big, but still, because they also measured before the switch and there is a clear control group, the claim of causation can be justified.

From the press release:

Because of a federal rule, kids throw away millions of dollars of fruits and vegetables every single day at school.

But a new study shows a simple, no-cost trick that should leave federal policy makers saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

When recess takes place before kids sit down to eat – instead of after – fruit and vegetable consumption increases by 54%.

“Recess is a pretty big deal for most kids. If you have kids chose between playing and eating their veggies, the time spent playing is going to win most of the time,” said Joe Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University. “You just don’t want to set the opportunity cost of good behaviors too high.”

Price is the lead study author and collaborated with Cornell’s David Just for the paper in Preventive Medicine. Their sample involved seven schools in a Utah school district (grades 1-6). Half of the children in the sample qualified for free or reduced price school lunch.

Three of the schools switched recess to before lunch while four schools continued to hold recess after lunch. For four days in spring and nine days in the fall, researchers measured fruit and vegetable waste by standing next to the trash cans and recording the number of servings of fruits and vegetables that each student consumed or threw away. They also measured whether or not each student ate at least one serving of fruits or vegetables.

After analyzing 22,939 data points, the researchers concluded that in the schools that switched recess to before lunch children ate 54% more fruits and vegetables. There was also a 45% increase in those eating at least one serving of fruits and vegetables. During the same time period consumption of fruits and vegetables actually decreased in the schools that didn’t switch.

Not getting a full, balanced meal can leave children feeling hungry during the rest of the school day leading to decreased academic performance and excessive snacking when they get home from school.

The researchers note that, “increased fruit and vegetable consumption in young children can have positive long term health effects. Additionally, decreasing waste of fruits and vegetables is important for schools and districts that are faced with high costs of offering healthier food choices.”

Because moving recess is a no-cost way to make kids healthier and make the school meal program more successful, Price and Just recommend that every school makes the switch.

Abstract of the study:

In this study, we evaluate if moving recess before lunch has an effect on the amount of fruits and vegetables elementary school students eat as part of their school-provided lunch.

Participants were 1st–6th grade students from three schools that switched recess from after to before lunch and four similar schools that continued to hold recess after lunch. We collected data for an average of 14 days at each school (4 days during spring 2011, May 3 through June 1, 2011 and 9 days during fall 2011, September 19 through November 11, 2011). All of the schools were in Orem, UT. Data was collected for all students receiving a school lunch and was based on observational plate waste data.

We find that moving recess before lunch increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by 0.16 servings per child (a 54% increase) and increased the fraction of children eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables by 10 percentage points (a 45% increase). In contrast, the schools in our control group actually experienced a small reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption during the same time period.

Our results show the benefits of holding recess before lunch and suggest that if more schools implement this policy, there would be significant increases in fruit and vegetable consumption among students who eat school lunch as part of the National School Lunch Program.

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