Yea or nay? Assessing perceptions to school meal changes since healthy meal makeovers

Healthier school meals are a promising strategy to improve the diets of children.

Healthier school meals matter.

Healthier school meals matter.

School meals provide a significant source of nutrition to millions of children every day and serve as an influential setting in which to model healthy eating. The passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 created the first update in school nutrition standards in over 30 years. The final rule for Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs was published on January 26, 2012. The new rule updates meal patterns and nutrition standards to align with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and requires most schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans-fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements. The improvements were based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine and are expected to improve children’s diets and help prevent childhood obesity.

Shortly after new national school meal standards went into place in fall 2012, the media began to report national growing student dissatisfaction. High school students from Kansas created a video parody, “We are Hungry,” set to the pop music hit, “We are Young” to protest the meal changes. The YouTube video has received nearly 1.5 million views and includes student athletes falling over due to lack of food at lunch.

Despite the negative media reports of famished students and concerned parents, results of a study published in August in the Journal of Childhood Obesity indicates greater support for the new meals among students one year after implementation. The purpose of the study was to assess the perceptions of elementary school administrators and food service personnel regarding students’ reactions to the new lunches.

Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation summarized results of this study and additional research from the University of Michigan. Study results included the following:

  • By the spring of school year 2012‐13, school administrators in U.S. public elementary, middle and high schools reported that the majority of students liked the new meals, at least to some extent.
  • Across all grade levels, most respondents reported that students complained initially in fall 2012, but that far fewer students were complaining by the time of the surveys in spring 2013.
  • Respondents from urban and suburban elementary and middle schools reported fewer student complaints and less waste than did those from rural schools. Urban and suburban elementary schools also were less likely to report decreases in the number of students who purchased lunch.
  • Elementary school respondents did not perceive much change in the amount of food students were discarding, but some increased plate waste was reported at middle and high schools.
  • Respondents from elementary and middle schools where a large proportion of the student body was eligible for free or reduced‐price lunch perceived that very few of the students were discarding the meal.

As you and your child prepare for the school year, take some time to talk with your school administrators and food service director to learn how they are supporting healthier school food. Read the article from Michigan State University Extension, School meals undergo a national healthy make-over for additional ways to support and promote healthy school breakfast and lunch in your community.

MSU Extension health and nutrition programming delivers high-quality and affordable education to serve the needs of children, youth, families and communities in urban, rural and suburban areas.

Inforgraphic: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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