Student Well-Being

What Teens Think of Their School Lunches: 5 Takeaways From a National Survey

By Arianna Prothero — January 06, 2023 4 min read
Image of a school lunch tray with food and milk.
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When it comes to providing school meals, schools have moved from one crisis to the next over the past few years.

First, it was how to feed kids when school buildings were shuttered at the height of the pandemic. Next, came massive supply chain disruptions that made finding basic items like milk a Herculean task.

Now, this year, schools have struggled to get eligible families to enroll in the federally funded meal program, which families must do for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in order to access free- and reduced-priced school meals.

With all those challenges, it’s easy to lose sight of students’ experiences with school meals. But that can be especially detrimental to middle and high school students, says a recent report from the nonprofit No Kid Hungry. That’s because, the organization says, older students are less likely to participate in school meals, despite being more likely to experience food insecurity.

And it’s an issue that’s only worsening as inflation and rising labor costs are driving up food prices beyond what family budgets can absorb.

Hunger makes it harder for kids to learn, and research has shown that school meals tend to be healthier than packed lunches. So, getting kids to participate in school meal programs—especially those from low-income families who may otherwise struggle to afford food—is crucial for their academic performance and overall health.

That makes understanding teens’ perceptions of school meals especially important, according to No Kid Hungry. So, it surveyed an informal sample of 1,000 students across the country, ages 12-18 for insights for school leaders on how to improve teens’ school meal experiences and participation rates.

Below are 5 big takeaways from survey:

1. Teens actually think school meals taste good

A majority of teens give their school meals positive reviews, according to the survey. Sixty-four percent said that school meals taste good while 55 percent said they are high quality. Even so, a substantial minority of teens don’t agree with those statements: One in five said they are unlikely to get school meals precisely because of poor taste and quality.

2. Student feedback leads to participation

Teens want the chance to provide their feedback on school meals. Eighty-seven percent of teens said that if schools asked them for their input on how to improve school meals, they would be more likely to eat them. It was one of the biggest motivators teens cited. But just a hair over half said that their school has never asked for their input on school meals.

3. Convenience is key

Eighty-three percent of students said that having meals available to them throughout the school day would make them more likely to eat school meals. About three quarters of students said that knowing they could get school meals at neighborhood locations or dropped off at their house when school is out of session would make them more likely to get school meals.

4. Lunch time is important to school climate

School meals aren’t just important to students’ nutrition, they also play a key role in building community and a more positive school climate. Nearly three-quarters said that school meals gave them an opportunity to build friendships and community with other students.

5. A hunger to know what’s in their food

Students really want to know what they’re being served in the cafeteria, and they want to be able to find that information online.

Ninety-two percent said that knowing what is in the food that schools serve would motivate them to get school meals. Seventy-seven percent said that knowing that school meals have to meet specific standards to ensure students are eating healthy, nutritious meals would make them more likely to participate in school meals. Eighty percent said that having a website with detailed information about school meals would be an additional motivator, and 73 percent said the same about seeing updates on social media about school meals.

Challenges facing school meal operations

Although supply chain disruptions have eased since this time last year, schools are now facing unusually high levels of school meal debt that has accumulated since the federal government stopped paying for all students to eat for free at school.

The universal free meals were part of a pandemic-era initiative that ended this summer. Families either aren’t aware that school meals are no longer free for everyone or that, even if they are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals, that they need to fill out paperwork to receive that benefit.

And some families may fall into a gap where they earn too much to qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals but are still struggling to pay for school lunches because of inflation.

As a result, meal debt has been piling up, even in districts where school personnel have been working to inform families of the changes since the summer.

In many districts, families have accumulated as much or more meal debt in the first few months of this school year as they have for an entire school year in the past.

Eighty-five percent of students said they would be more likely to want to et school meals if they were completely free.

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