Nearly two years ago, American schoolchildren began sitting down to healthier school lunches, thanks to new federal nutrition guidelines. Media reports of the nutrition upgrade weren’t terribly encouraging, with stories of unhappy kids, unhappy parents and politicians who think addressing childhood obesity is an example of the “nanny state.” However, recent research has found what most parents probably already know: Kids are pretty adaptable — they just need some time.
First, a little background. With the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act came the first major update to school nutrition in 15 years. The revised nutrition standards encourage schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, to serve only fat-free and low-fat milk, get rid of trans fats, and limit calories and sodium. Schools that adopt the nutrition standards are eligible for increased federal reimbursement for school lunch and breakfast. As of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 90 percent of schools are meeting the new nutrition standards. And fortunately, researchers have found that while kids initially complained about the changes, they got used to the healthier meals pretty quickly.
In a study published in the August issue of Childhood Obesity and in an accompanying research brief published by Bridging the Gap, researchers found that most elementary, middle school and high school students liked the new meals. Both research efforts, which are the first national studies to examine student reaction to the updated nutrition standards, are based on surveys with school staff on their perceptions of student reactions to the new meals. Both efforts found that while students initially complained about the changes at the beginning of the school year, far fewer were complaining by spring.
In the Childhood Obesity study, authors Lindsey Turner and Frank Chaloupka surveyed school administrators and food service staff at about 550 public elementary schools in the second half of the 2012–2013 school year. More than half of respondents said students complained about the meals at first, however 70 percent reported that students seemed to like the new lunches. The study also found that only 4.3 percent of respondents thought “a lot fewer” students were buying lunch, whereas 6.2 percent though “a lot more” were buying lunch. The authors wrote:
Many aspects of school lunch quality have been improving over time, with many improvements underway even before the 2012–2013 school year. Although some media reports have described student complaints about the meals, in actuality, very few respondents perceived strong resistance to the changes. Although 13.7% of respondents ‘‘strongly agreed’’ that at first students complained about the meals, 63.2% also agreed or strongly agreed that most students are no longer concerned about the meals.
However, researchers did uncover some disparities. The study found that respondents from rural schools were more likely to report that more students were complaining, fewer students were buying school lunch and students were eating less of their lunches. The authors noted that “this is particularly important, given the higher rates of childhood obesity in rural areas as well as an overall reduced life expectancy among rural populations and a widening rural-urban life expectancy gap.”
Also, respondents serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students believed that more students were buying lunch and eating more of the meal — a finding that the study described as “encouraging news.” Interestingly, the study also found that perceived complaints were higher at schools that didn’t serve “regular” pizza (many schools have switched to a healthier version that includes whole wheat crust or lower-fat cheese). Overall, the study concludes that despite the media’s magnification of student complaints, student eating behavior has changed very little.
In the accompanying research brief, the field was expanded to include middle schools and high schools. In those schools, survey respondents said student complaints about the new meals dropped dramatically from fall to spring. By spring of the 2012–2013 school year, a majority of middle and high school students seemed to like the healthier meals. Some schools did report increases in plate waste (food that’s left uneaten), though less plate waste was reported at middle schools with a higher percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Like the elementary school study, administrators at rural schools reported more student complaints than administrators at urban and suburban schools. Overall, the research brief found “generally positive” reactions to healthier school lunches.
In 2012, the National School Lunch Program provided healthy meals to 31 million children every school day. The program is often tapped as an ideal way to encourage and promote healthy eating habits and make inroads against childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past three decades.
Click here for a copy of the Childhood Obesity study and here for the accompanying research brief. To learn more about the new school meal nutrition standards and how to support them, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.