• In Year One, both the HD and the LD fourth- and fifth-grade students all ate about the same amount of fruit and vegetable servings per day (about 4 servings, or 2 cups). In Year Two, the younger HD students (fourth graders who had moved into fifth grade) had increased their consumption of vegetables by nearly 1 serving (0.4 cups), and for both fruits and vegetables by about 1.5 servings (0.7 cups). The LD kids had decreased their consumption of both fruits and vegetables by nearly 0.4 servings.
  • As they became fifth-grade students in Year Two, the HD fourth-graders showed upward trends in family dinners prepared from scratch, eating with their families nearly every day, using recipes from school at home and helping prepare dinner. In contrast, the LD fourth-graders showed no increase in these behaviors, although more students from these schools said they ate family dinner nearly every day and this remained consistent from  year one to year two.
  • HD kids showed significantly greater preferences for green leafy vegetables in particular as they moved into fifth grade, compared to the LD fourth-graders. But by seventh grade, preference for fruits and vegetables was similar among the various exposure groups, except for HD kids having more of a taste for green leafy vegetables.
  • Sixth-grade students showed no significant increase in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to the previous year, but seventh-grade students in the HD middle school [presumably Martin Luther King Jr.] showed small increases in total fruit and vegetable consumption, putting them at a consumption level of about 4.5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Seventh-graders in the other middle school, where there was less exposure to School Lunch Initiative components, showed a mean decrease in both fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day.
  • By Year Three, HD seventh-graders had increased their nutrition knowledge scores by 5 percent over the previous year, while students attending the other two, LD middle schools, had decreased their knowledge scores by 6 percent in one school and 14 percent in the other.
  • At the one middle school where seventh-grade students showed a mean decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day, the cooking and garden programming was
    offered only as an elective — indicating the need for continued exposure to the School Lunch Initiative into middle school.

The findings roughly confirm my own anecdotal experiences working for a week in the “Dining Commons” at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which I reported on for the Cafeteria Confidential series. Despite being involved in Waters’ flagship “Edible Schoolyard” gardening and cooking program, students displayed a conspicuous indifference to vegetables in the food line. The three-year evaluation seems to indicate that while pre-teens embrace the idea of eating more healthfully, they lapse into a sort of food funk as they enter puberty.

“I think in middle school, developmentally kids are all over the place. It is really a tough stage, and it’s also reflected in their food choices,” Bonnie Christenson, executive chef for Berkeley schools, said about the evaluation’s results. “In high school, you see the kids starting to eat salad again. They’re moving away from their parents’ control, but they are more mature and responsible. They eat a wider variety of foods including veggies.”

But, as Christenson notes, “The study doesn’t cover a long enough period to reflect this.”

So, do memories of gardening and cooking lessons revive in high school, or after adolescence, and produce more food-conscious adults? That was the hope of Berkeley’s food service team, who stressed to me repeatedly while I was there that kids must be exposed to healthier foods even if they don’t eat them, in the hope that the lessons will inform their eating habits later in life.

“I really do think it makes an impact for life — truly,” said chef Ann Cooper, who was hired by Waters to reform the meal program at Berkeley and now runs food service for schools in Boulder, Colo. “Middle school is tough no matter what. But in all other academic domains we continue to work with them, and we need to in this area as well.”

Waters, who was quoted celebrating the study’s results in The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, did not respond to my query about the underwhelming middle school findings.

“Middle school is often a time when eating habits worsen as children move into adolescence,” is as close to an explanation as the authors of this report offer. “To sustain gains in healthy eating made by program exposure in the younger grades,” they conclude, “continued learning and availability of healthy food options can help overcome the pull toward poor habits.”
 
In other words, carry on.