Student Well-Being

Is Parental Input the Key to Healthy Student Eating Habits?

By Evie Blad — December 31, 2013 1 min read
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Would students make healthier choices if their parents got weekly “report cards” detailing what they’re eating?

Researchers from Cornell University piloted such a program over five weeks in a rural New York school district with what they admitted was a small sample of 27 students. To test the notion that parental accountability would encourage healthy eating, they emailed the students’ parents weekly updates that detailed how many fruits, vegetables, starches, milk, snacks, and a la carte foods their child selected at school. They concluded that such a project could be a “low-cost, scalable intervention.”

[Nutrition report cards] encouraged more home conversations about nutrition and more awareness of food selections. Despite the small sample, the [nutrition report card] was associated with reduced selection of some items, such as the percentage of those selecting cookies, which decreased from 14.3 to 6.5 percent. Additionally, despite requiring new keys on the check-out registers to generate the [nutrition report card], checkout times increased by only 0.16 seconds per transaction, and compiling and sending the [Nutrition report cards] required a total weekly investment of 30 minutes of staff time."

So maybe I’m less likely to take a cookie and more likely to eat an apple on Monday if I know my health-conscious mom is going to talk to me about it on Friday. But what about parents who don’t really care what their kids are eating or don’t take the time to read the weekly emails?

Even without any action on the part of parents, the [nutrition report card] could positively influence food choice through the child's perception that parents were observing those choices. At the other side of the spectrum, more-engaged parents might use the [nutrition report card] to set eating goals with their child or to limit their child's a la carte purchases. In the mid-range of possible parental responses, the [nutrition report card] could prompt questions and information-sharing between parents and children on the topics of school lunches and food choice."

I wonder if the effects of such an intervention would wane over time as students grew accustomed to the weekly reports and less sensitive to their effects. The researchers seem to think it’s worth a try. Some states have already implemented similar parental-involvement measures, like annual report cards detailing a student’s body mass index, in an effort to make their healthy initiatives more effective.

It has to be frustrating for cafeteria directors who have spent countless hours coordinating the purchase of farm-fresh produce to see students shun the fruits of their labor. Maybe, with the use of nutrition report cards, mom would have something to say about that.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.