Student Reactions During the First Year of Updated School Lunch Nutrition Standards

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School meals play a major role in shaping the diets and health of young people.

The Issue:

Updated nutrition standards for school meals, put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, went into effect at the beginning of school year (SY) 2012-13. The updates significantly increased the amount of whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, and vegetables in the meals, and set limits for sugars, fats, and sodium.

This brief summarizes data from two of the first studies to investigate students' opinions of the healthier lunches. Researchers surveyed administrators at elementary, middle and high schools about their perceptions of students’ reactions.

Key Findings

  • By the spring of SY 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.