Building excitement around school meals with the help of guest chefs and fresh recipes could be a significant boon for school lunch programs as well as student eating habits, a new study found.
Recently published in the journal Appetite, the study examined the impact of Chefs Move to Schools, an initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. With an overriding goal of encouraging schoolchildren to make healthier meal choices, Chefs Move to Schools pairs volunteer professional chefs with schools to offer cooking education to kids as well as culinary advice to school food services staff. Researchers wanted to know if bringing guest chefs into schools would positively impact school lunch program participation and whether the newly created meal offerings could increase student consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Participation in the National School Lunch Program has come under some scrutiny lately as schools transition to meet new federal nutrition standards, and guest chefs could be one way to rally student enthusiasm and inspire school meals that are healthier, yet appealing to young people. (In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 issued new nutrition standards for school lunch meals. More on those changes are here.) To study the impact of the chef initiative, researchers helped organize a pilot event at an upstate New York high school and with the support of the school’s food service staff, welcomed a volunteer chef who specialized in French cuisine to participate.
Before the main event, the volunteer chef visited the school to meet with food service staff and learn about the foods available to the school cafeteria, eventually deciding to develop recipes for foods already popular with students. The guest chef, whose recipes stayed within the standards of the National School Lunch Program, made three pizzas — meat taco pizza, bean taco pizza and garlic spinach pizza — as well as a ranch burger. (The pizza was made with whole-wheat crust and low-fat mozzarella cheese, while the hamburger was made with a whole-wheat bun dusted with cool ranch seasoning.) In addition to the guest chef’s offerings, the school chef prepared a meat lover’s pizza, a mozzarella burger and pre-packaged salad with fresh greens, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette dressing. A day before the new foods were officially rolled out, an after-school tasting was held where students could meet the volunteer chef and talk about her food creations. With excitement buzzing the next day, students filed into the cafeteria to make their meal choices.
In examining the resulting sales data and plate waste, researchers discovered that the effort did make a positive difference. They found that after the new meal items were introduced, 9 percent more students bought National School Lunch Program-compliant meals. And while plate waste showed that students ate about the same amount of their entrée as they had previously, they also ate 16 percent more of the selected vegetable sides, most notably the newly offered pre-packaged salad. Researchers speculated that the uptick in veggie consumption might have been due to the appetizing pairing of pizza and salad.
Study co-author Andrew Hanks, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University and an affiliated researcher with the university’s Food Innovation Center, said he and fellow researchers expected to see higher school meal participation, but the veggie part was a happy surprise.
“You market the foods and encourage kids to come and buy lunch with a tasting event, so you expect the excitement to increase and to see the increase in purchases of school lunch,” Hanks told me. “But the increase in vegetable consumption was little bit of a surprise. We’re excited to see that.”
Hanks said that while the study doesn’t tease out whether the positive impact was due to the excitement of hosting a guest chef or the actual food offerings, the whole point of the study is to examine the Chefs Move to Schools (CMTS) initiative as a package. In other words, CMTS is designed to foster long-term partnerships between professional chefs and local schools, and so the study examined the value of the initiative as a whole. Still, CMTS is not without its challenges. Study authors Hanks, David Just and Brian Wansink write:
Despite the initial fanfare at the onset of the CMTS program, tight school budgets and the narrow nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program, relative to those faced by professional chefs, have caused many to question the ability of professional chefs to contribute to school foods. In fact, some school food service professionals have been very vocal in their opposition. Professional chefs tend to operate with complete freedom when selecting ingredients and tend to prepare dishes that are significantly more expensive than the typical school lunch. Additionally, there are questions as to whether students would value higher quality creations over the traditional lunch fare.
Hanks told me that some resistance is natural when an outside chef comes into a school cafeteria that’s home to long-time employees. That’s why relationship building is important. In the case of the pilot event in upstate New York, the guest chef made an effort to “live in the school chef’s shoes,” Hanks said. The guest chef featured in the study was interested in learning about school foods, in learning from the school chef and she made an effort to develop her recipes using foods that were easily accessible to the school cafeteria.
Overall, the study concluded that CMTS has the potential to persuade more kids to eat healthier foods as well as increase school food service revenue, which could help offset any expenses related to new recipes and ingredients. Hanks said that while the study was a fairly small one, the results could be useful to schools in every community.
“One of the benefits of the (CMTS) program is that there’s no set rulebook that a school or chef has to play by, so each school can tailor its own program to its needs,” he told me. “Our hope is that (school) cafeterias can pick a couple elements and apply them in their own settings to enhance the experience for school lunch staff and students as well as have it be an educational opportunity for the outside chef, too.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.