School & District Management

Are Healthier School Lunches Winning Over Students?

By Evie Blad — July 21, 2014 6 min read
Leonardo Guerra, who works for a food vendor, holds a school lunch tray featuring his company's whole wheat tortillas at the School Nutrition Association conference in Boston earlier this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutritional standards for schools, which took effect in 2012, require schools to serve more fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit calories, fat, and sodium in their federally subsidized meals.

While many students weren’t keen on more nutritious school lunches when their districts first began complying with new federal meal standards in the 2012-13 school year, they eventually warmed up to the healthier fare, complaining less and eating as much as they did before the rules went into place, according to two national surveys of school administrators released Monday.

The pair of surveys—one of elementary school administrators and one of middle and high school administrators—was funded by Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the standards, created through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

“Policymakers at all levels should be encouraged by these findings and should continue to support schools’ efforts to provide students with healthy meals and snacks,” Tina Kauh, a program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement.

The research was released as debate continues over the standards, which have been gradually implemented since the fall of 2012 and require schools to serve more fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit calories, fat, and sodium in their federally subsidized meals. Supporters of the standards, including first lady Michelle Obama, have argued that they are necessary to address childhood obesity and related illnesses.

But the School Nutrition Association and others have argued that the new standards have been too much too fast, driving up costs for many districts and spurring an increase in plate waste from students who find the healthier food unpalatable. They’ve rallied support for a rider in the U.S. House of Representatives’ proposed agriculture appropriations bill that would allow some schools to opt out of the standards for a year if they can prove a net revenue loss over a six-month period since adopting the rules. The Senate’s proposal does not include such waivers. Neither chamber has voted on its plan.

A food service worker displays a beef and bean burger at the School Nutrition Association conference in Boston earlier this month. The burger, which is comprised of about 25 percent beans, features lower fat, sodium, and cholesterol content than a standard beef burger, while also earning a vegetable credit in the USDA's new nutritional requirements for school lunches.

The School Nutrition Association supports “many of the new federal requirments” for meals, SNA President Julia Bauscher said in a statement Monday responding to the release of the surveys.

“However, these reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality,” Ms. Bauscher said, citing declining participation nationally. “While many changes have been welcomed by students, there is no denying that some of the new requirements have driven students away from the National School Lunch Program.”

A central point of contention in the nutrition standards’ debate has been whether students are actually willing to eat the healthier foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has countered claims of increased discarded food by pointing to a March study by researchers at Harvard University that found that students are now eating more fruit and vegetables, and that, while plate waste is a concern, levels are not any higher than they were before the standards were adopted. Research included in the Bridging the Gap brief shows that respondents, who were either principals or food service providers, have seen fewer complaints since students first began eating meals prepared under the new rules.

Reviewing the Findings

In response to a nationally representative survey of 557 elementary school administrators conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, 56 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that students complained about the new meals at first, and 64 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “few students complain now.” Seventy percent of elementary school administrators surveyed said students “generally like the new lunch.”

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said about the same amount of lunch is consumed under the new rules, and 65 percent said about the same number of students purchase lunches now, according to the study, which was also published in Childhood Obesity on Monday.

“Respondents at elementary schools with more students from lower-income families reported increases in student purchasing, compared with decreases reported from higher-SES schools,” said the Bridging the Gap brief.

In a parallel survey of 640 secondary school leaders, also conducted by the Institute for Social Research, 44 percent of respondents from middle schools said students complained at first “to a great/very great extent,” and 53 percent of respondents from high schools said the same. Eleven percent of middle school respondents said students complain now, compared with 18 percent of high school respondents. Seventy percent of respondents from middle schools agreed with the statement that “students generally like the new lunches” at least to some extent, compared with 63 percent of respondents from high schools.

“Compared with urban or suburban middle schools, rural ones reported more student complaints (at first and at the time of survey) and were more likely to report increases in plate waste,” the research brief said.

Among respondents from middle schools, 15 percent said students were throwing away less lunch, 44 percent said the amount was about the same, 25 percent said it was a “little more,” and 20 percent said it was “much more.”

Among respondents from high schools, 14 percent said students were throwing away less lunch, 41 percent said the amount was about the same, 25 percent said it was a “little more,” and 16 percent said it was “much more.”

Less plate waste was reported at schools where 40 percent or more of students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals than at schools with fewer students from low-income homes, the brief said.

Debate Continues

The survey findings join a clamor of conflicting personal testimonies and official research that are fueling the school meal debate.

For example, advocates for waivers counter positive research findings by citing a February report from the Government Accountability Office that found student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students, or 3.7 percent, between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013, after “having increased steadily for many years.”

“This decrease was driven primarily by a decline of 1.6 million students eating school lunch who pay full price for meals, despite increases in students eating school lunch who receive free meals,” the GAO report said.

In a national survey used to complete that report, state and local officials listed winning student acceptance, addressing plate waste, and planning menus as challenges, but said “that they expect many of these areas will become less challenging over time.”

More school nutrition rules have been implemented since administrators completed the surveys detailed in Monday’s research brief. On July 1, rules requiring lower sodium limits and stronger whole-grain requirements went into effect along with new “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules, which apply new standards to foods sold throughout the school day, including those offered in vending machines, on a la carte lines, and in school fundraisers.

Both sides in the debate over waivers from the meal rules appear to be entrenched in their positions.

The USDA has argued that it will help schools implement the rules through regulatory flexibility, which it has already offered for whole-grain pasta and protein requirements. At a “Kids State Dinner” at the White House last week, the first lady encouraged children in attendance to “be ambassadors” for healthier eating and to push back against efforts to change the rules’ implementation.

The School Nutrition Association, meanwhile, remains committed to supporting the waiver plan, a spokesperson said after representatives met with officials from the White House and the USDA earlier this month.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week

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