BERKELEY--Their parents might be consuming zucchini pancakes and wheat grass juice, but for kids in the city of Berkeley it's mostly thumbs down on fruits and vegetables, according to a new nutrition study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
The survey of middle-school students found teens and preteens in Berkeley eating only half as much produce as national standards recommend. And what little they did eat wasn't exactly carrot sticks and apple chunks.
"Generally, we're talking more like tomatoes, lettuce and onions on hamburgers or sandwiches," said study co-author Patricia Crawford, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension nutritionist.
She and UC Berkeley public health professor Gladys Block surveyed 252 students ranging in age from 11 to 15 at Martin Luther King and Willard middle schools in Berkeley. Study participants were asked to report everything they ate over a 24-hour period, whether the food came from school or from home.
Crawford said that, despite Berkeley's fame as a health food mecca, the diet of its children looks much like the rest of the state. The number one vegetable was the potato, which kids enjoyed most in the form of french fries. In the fruit category, packaged, processed juices dominated.
"Twenty percent of the kids reported eating no fruits or vegetables on the day assessed, and 55 percent reported only two or fewer servings of fruits and vegetables," Crawford said.
She said nutritionists recommend five daily servings of produce.
The new data could be discouraging to parents. If even Berkeley kids raised in a climate of whole food and nutrition awareness can't be persuaded to eat their greens, some might think there is no hope to get any kids to eat right. But not so, said Crawford.
Whether food came from home or school made an important difference, she said. Middle-schoolers were more likely to eat the fruits and vegetables provided in lunches brought from home.
"It's about food preference," Crawford said. "Maybe children don't like the fruit cup the school gives them, but Mom knows they like bananas, and that's what she sends, something like that."
Of students in the four ethnic groups surveyed - Latino, Caucasian, Asian and African American - produce consumption ranged from more than three servings daily to less than two, with students of Asian descent reporting the most servings and African American students the fewest.
Crawford and Block's study establishes a baseline record of what Berkeley students were eating prior to the adoption of a new Berkeley Unified School District food policy last August that called for serving more organic and locally grown food in the schools.
"This may be the first school district in the nation to adopt this kind of policy," Crawford said.
In the near future, some Berkeley school lunches will include the harvest from crops the children will grow on school property. These community urban gardening projects could be an exciting development, Crawford said. "Once children are more involved in the production of food," she said, "they are more willing to eat it."
Over the next year, the researchers will track dietary changes in the fruit and vegetable consumption of Berkeley children. Stay tuned, Crawford said, for more news on what the city's kids really eat and whether school policies can make a difference.
Also participating in the study were students from the UC Berkeley nutrition assessment course in the School of Public Health and Berkeley Unified School District administrator Yolanda Huang.
The project was funded by the Berkeley Food Project and the University of California Cooperative Extension.