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Environmental connections to public health >>

School lunch: More fruits & veggies, please!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

By Rebecca Sutton, EWG Senior Scientist

Whether your child eats the school lunch or your own hand-packed version, there's a chance she might not be getting enough fruits and veggies. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that American adults and teens are chronic under-eaters when it comes to produce (shocking, right?).

And while we likely do a better job with our little ones, per capita annual consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has been roughly flat for the past two decades.

About those pesticides... Of course, a concerned parent piling produce into lunch boxes might also be pondering the trace levels of pesticides that could be present. It's a valid concern: USDA research shows that pesticides are detected in 7 of every 10 fruit and vegetable samples tested. Very little is known about the safety of real-world pesticide exposures, but the available studies of people point to increased risks of neurological damage in children. While this is unsettling, the answer is not skipping the produce.

So what's a parent to do?

1. Buy organic if you can. Yes, those organic peaches and apples are more expensive, but they're a worthwhile investment - especially if you're pregnant or feeding kids. Exposure to toxic chemicals - such as pesticides - is especially risky for smaller, still-developing bodies.

2. Buy organic when it matters most. Every year EWG ranks popular fruits and vegetables based on the amount of pesticide residues found on them. Sweet peas, mangos and avocados, for example, are all on EWG's "Clean 15" list, meaning they have the lowest levels of pesticide residue. Celery, peaches and strawberries are among the "Dirty Dozen" with the highest levels. When budgeting your produce dollars, you can feel better about buying conventional when you know which ones have lower pesticide residues.

Download EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce and the handy iPhone app at You can get a grocery bag tag for a small donation, too.

3. Take a trip to the farmers' market. Buying local doesn't necessarily mean "pesticide-free," but it does give you the chance to talk to the farmers themselves and find out what growing methods they use. Small farms may not always be certified organic by the USDA, but sometimes they use little or no synthetic chemicals.

Here are a few low-pesticide fruits and veggies we'd like to see in more school lunches, whether packed by parents or offered in the cafeteria:

  • Melon (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew): High in vitamin C and potassium, cubes of these sweet, crunchy treats are easy to pack in a lunchbox or scoop onto a cafeteria plate.
  • Cabbage: Full of B and C vitamins and fiber, cabbage goes great in salads and coleslaw and can be stuffed and baked.
  • Sweet corn: I'm happy to chomp on a fresh, sweet ear of corn, even raw, though this might not be an option for kids who're losing or have lost a baby tooth in front. Off the cob and cooked, corn is tasty hot or cold.

With all this pesticide talk, let's be clear about the benefits of produce: The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. EWG's Shopper's Guide can help reduce exposures to pesticides as much as possible for families wisely seeking to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Get the straight scoop about pesticides and produce from Dr. Weil in this short video.

Learn more about healthy school lunches - and the public policies that affect them - from Chef Ann Cooper, also known as "The Renegade Lunch Lady," on EWG's live online chat about healthy school lunches Thursday, November 4, from 2-3 PM Eastern.

This post originally appeared on Dr.


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