Students Adjusting to Healthier School Lunches: Q&A with Lindsey Turner

Oct 8, 2014, 12:20 PM

A recently published research brief finds that six months after updated U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for healthier meals were implemented in public schools, elementary and high school students are buying—and eating—the healthier meals.

The brief published by Bridging the Gap, a national research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), shows that 70 percent of elementary school principals and school food directors said that students generally liked the healthier school lunches that began being served in the fall of 2012. Similarly, 70 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students also like the meals. These are the first national studies to examine students’ reactions to the healthier meals.

“The updated meals standards are resulting in healthier meals for tens of millions of kids,” said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the elementary school study, and a co-investigator for Bridging the Gap. “Our studies show that kids are OK with these changes, and that there have not been widespread challenges with kids not buying or eating the meals.”

The survey responders were asked about students’ initial reaction to the meals in fall 2012, and how things were progressing a few months afterwards. Findings included:

  • About half of the responders from elementary schools (56 percent) reported that students complained at first, but by spring 2013 64 percent of responders said few students were complaining.
  • In middle schools, the percentage of students complaining dropped from 44 percent in fall 2012 to 11 percent in spring 2013. High schools saw similar declines, from 53 percent to 18 percent.
  • Eighty-four percent of elementary school responders said approximately the same number of students (or more) were purchasing lunch this school year as did the previous year.
  • Seventy percent of responders said middle-school students generally liked the new lunches, as did 63 percent of responders from high schools.

“The updated meal standards are a landmark achievement—they make schools healthier places for our nation’s children and are a critical step toward reversing the childhood obesity epidemic and building a Culture of Health nationwide,” said Tina Kauh, program officer at RWJF. “Policymakers at all levels should be encouraged by these findings and should continue to support schools’ efforts to provide students with healthy meals and snacks.”

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Lindsey Turner about the study findings.

NewPublicHealth: News reports from about a year back seemed to indicate some kids were not happy with the healthier lunches. But your studies show that for the most part school lunches are being well-received.

Lindsey Turner: Many of those news stories were early on soon after the lunches had been changed. They’re also based on fairly small numbers of schools or case reports, and so one challenge with that is that it may not necessarily be representative of schools in general across the country. One of the strengths of our study is that we were able to get data from a fairly large number of schools from all across the country, which presents a little bit more of a balanced picture of what’s actually going on.

NPH: How do you describe the key changes through the school lunch program?

Turner: They were phased in over time, and the first set of changes involved serving a variety of vegetables over the course of a week—selections from orange vegetables to leafy greens—rather than just offering the same types of vegetables every day. That was one of the key changes. Another change was that fruit was required to be offered every day, so a fruit and a vegetable every day. And then also phased in increasingly over time were requirements for whole grains to be offered in increasing numbers over the years. So at this point the requirement is now that all grain products must have a high amount of whole grains.

NPH: The study shows some push back by kids on pizza. Why was that, do you think?

Turner: One of the things that we looked at with the questionnaire was the types of products that were offered in the lunch meal. One thing we heard from school food officials over time is that they are tending to be switching to healthier types of pizzas, reformulating them in certain ways to make them a little bit more compliant with the new requirements—so things such as whole grain crust and perhaps reducing the fat content by changing the toppings and using lower-fat cheeses—things that allow pizza to still be on the menu, but changing it in ways that make it a little bit healthier for kids. So one of the things that we found is that where the regular pizzas had been offered over time were removed from the menus, that then there seemed to be some more perceived complaints, and I think that’s just a function of students adjusting to different menus than they might have seen the prior school year.

NPH: What accounts for the socioeconomic disparity and the reactions to the lunches that the studies found?

Turner: That particular question we can’t really get at. We can certainly speculate to some reasons why it might happen. I think what’s safer to say is that our data about the differences in participation and consumption across different socioeconomic groups is quite encouraging because there had been concerns that lower-income kids who really don’t have much of a choice about whether to eat the school lunch or not. Many of those children and their families rely on those meals for a really important source of nourishment during the day. There have been concerns that perhaps they wouldn’t like them, they wouldn’t eat them, and therefore not get the calories that they need. I think it was very reassuring that we didn’t see a drop among those kids, and also that the perception was that at those schools the kids are also eating the meals and not complaining in any greater amount. So, quite reassuring that there’s not an adverse impact on the most vulnerable sections of these populations.

NPH: The data seemed to show that rural school kids were less likely to like the lunches. Do you know why that was?

Turner: That’s the next big question. It was unexpected in some ways, but then also looking at other data on the way schools across the country have implemented these new changes, it’s somewhat consistent with findings that there had been greater challenges in rural schools. Other data has shown that those schools tend to be very under-resourced. They are sometimes geographically quite remote and therefore have supply issues and worse kitchen infrastructure that really makes it hard to offer good healthy meals. And so they’re still expected to change their offerings but might not have really a great source of palatable, tasty options, whereas urban and suburban schools might have that more readily available. That’s also speculative.

As to the greater complaints, it’s quite puzzling, but also very intriguing for future follow-up studies because, again, we know that rural kids have a lot of other health risk factors and obesity tends to be higher in rural communities, so they really need extra help to make these changes to promote kids health in school.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.