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Study: kids who have recess before lunch eat more vegetables

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Schools sometimes struggle to get kids to eat their fruits and vegetables at lunch — a food fight that's become more important as new regulations force school lunch to be healthier. A Harvard study of an urban, low-income school district found that kids threw out 60 percent of their vegetables and 40 percent of their fruit.

But a new study of a Utah school district suggests that getting exercise and fresh air before lunch could make kids more likely to eat healthier food.

The study, published last week in the journal Preventive Medicine, looked at seven schools in the Utah school district. Three experimented with having recess before lunch. The other four schools continued letting kids outside to play after they eat, as is the tradition in most American schools. In both sets of schools, researchers stood by the trash cans in the lunchroom and counted how many servings of fruit and vegetables were being thrown out.

Their findings: in schools with recess before lunch, fruit and vegetable consumption increased 54 percent, and the number of students eating at least one serving of fruit or vegetables increased 45 percent. There was no increase in schools that continued having recess after lunch.

There's a growing movement for recess first, lunch later

Getting kids to help themselves to a serving of vegetables is more important than ever, because school meals that don't include at least one serving of fruit or vegetables are no longer being reimbursed by the federal government.

But the movement to get kids to play outside before they eat, rather than the other way around, predates the new school lunch rules. Previous studies have also found that kids eat more, and more healthfully, if they have recess first. Schools from Arizona to Maine that have tried the switch themselves report that students are calmer if they go back to class directly after lunch, rather than after recess, and that they visit the school nurse less.

Still, recess before lunch hasn't really caught on. Focus groups on the issue have found that it's up against a powerful force in American schools: tradition. "Our grandparents went to recess after lunch," one administrator said in a focus group published in the Journal of School Nutrition in 2006. "So it truly is a paradigm shift."

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