DAVIS, Calif. — If given a choice of fresh fruits and vegetables, children will eat them, according to a University of California study.

New dietary guidelines issued recently by the federal government, which now recommend nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily compared to five servings in previous directives, have left parents and school food service directors wondering how to get kids to eat all that produce. Data compiled in school lunch programs may help them, according to Gail Feenstra, food systems analyst at the UC Davis-based statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP).

Feenstra's study compiled hundreds of images of lunches chosen by elementary students at farm-to-school salad bar programs in the spring of 2004 that show children prefer fresh fruits and vegetables.

"When a variety of fruits and vegetables is offered, kids take them," she said. "This is most true when options are fresh," she said.

In the last five years, farm-to-school salad bar programs have taken root at many school districts across the country, Feenstra said. A related benefit is the increase in purchases from small- and mid-sized farms in the local areas, she added.

"As programs appear, we often hear the claim that children will reject fresh produce," she said. She and UC SAREP program assistant Jeri Ohmart and graduate student Melissa Salazar of the UC Davis School of Education took photos of lunches children choose at school.

"Our initial data suggests that, when presented with fresh fruits and vegetables in a salad bar format, children readily choose them," said Ohmart.

What they chose

But what exactly do kids choose? Seasonal fruit favorites were strawberries, cherries, melons and grapes, while the preferred seasonal vegetables were carrots, lettuce mix, red bell peppers and cherry tomatoes.

Researchers saw that kids take more fruits and vegetables from the salad bar than the USDA hot lunch minimum.

"We also found that choice and variety are important dimensions of meals, for both health and social development," said Ohmart. "The most common reason kids said they preferred the salad bar was that they could choose their food."

She said children "know what tastes good to them."

The Davis Joint Unified School District began implementing a farm-to-school salad bar program in 2001 that includes gardening, nutrition education, on-site recycling and farm tours. The district's cafeterias have salad bars stocked with seasonal produce from local farmers, Feenstra said.

"During this time, we have seen total district produce purchases more than triple, from $13,000 to more than $42,000, with 38 percent coming from local growers," she said. "Children's access to fresh produce has definitely increased."

Feenstra and Ohmart began the study during the fourth year of the Davis program when student nutrition services director Rafaelita Curva was faced with questions about what the children were actually taking from the salad bar.

Many photographs

The researchers took more than 850 digital images of student lunches in Davis and the nearby rural community of Winters.

"The pictures showed us the amounts and kinds of food the kids were choosing," Ohmart said.

Using USDA minimum serving requirements as a baseline, they calculated for each plate the amount of protein, amount of fruit and vegetables, number of choices of fruit and vegetables, and number of bread servings. Servings of croutons and ranch dressing were also evaluated.

"We saw that children are taking more fruits and vegetables with a salad bar model," Feenstra said.