Providing nutritional information with high school cafeteria lunch choices not only helps students to make better food choices, but also improves the students' satisfaction with school lunch programs and dining room staff, according to a Penn State study. Unfortunately, the additional information does not improve opinions about dining ambiance or cost.
"Findings from this study illustrate the value of informed choice in yielding greater customer satisfaction with dining occasions," the researchers report in the current issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management. "Providing nutrition information at the point of service increased the student ratings of school nutrition programs that already were rated above average, especially in food quality."
While the researchers -- David Cranage, associate professor of hospitality management, Martha T. Conklin, associate professor of hospitality management and Carolyn U. Lambert, associate professor of food systems management, all in Penn State's School of Hospitality Management -- agree that more research is necessary to expand their findings outside the northeastern United States, they note that their findings mirror previous studies with adults.
The study looked at six schools in four school districts in Pennsylvania. In those districts where there were two high schools, one school was designated a control and the researchers asked the cafeteria personnel to do nothing unusual. In the other schools, the food services posted information, in the standard U.S. Food and Drug Administration's style for Nutrition Facts Labels found on all packaged foods, at the point where students had to choose between entrees. No other changes in food service were made from the previous six weeks.
Before the study began, students were asked to fill out a survey assessing their satisfaction level with the school nutrition program. After six weeks of nutrition information, the students were again given the survey assessing their satisfaction level with the school nutrition program.
A previous paper by the researchers showed that the nutrition information did, in fact, improve the healthy choices made by students.
The satisfaction survey showed that the student were also more satisfied with food quality and service quality. Even though the food did not change and one would expect the students' satisfaction with the cafeteria food to deteriorate over time and repetition, the survey found that "the students consistently rated appearance and quality of food higher."
In the control schools, the overall satisfaction with the food and service decreased.
The researchers also found that providing point of service nutritional information seemed to increase satisfaction with the service of the food, especially with the friendliness ratings of the foodservice staff, even though the staff was not supposed to change anything and was not to refer to the nutritional information signs.
"Giving students both choice and the information to help make the choice, gives students feelings of empowerment and self-determination," says Cranage. "This makes them feel good about the foodservice staff who supplied the choice and information." The Penn State researchers do report that "nutrition information is not a panacea that creates a halo effect over the entire school nutrition program . . . nutrition information had no effect on student ratings of pricing, dining room ambiance or perceptions of menu variety." They note that this was expected as nutrition information would not influence perceptions of noise, temperature or cleanliness.
While gender and frequency of participation did not influence students' ratings, satisfaction with overall foodservice and food quality dropped with increasing grade level. Ninth graders' ratings were higher than seniors' ratings. However, the ratings of service personnel actually increased with increasing grade level.
The researchers caution that the period of study was only six weeks and that students may become desensitized to the point of service nutritional information.
The Child Nutrition Foundation's Lincoln Foodservice Grant for Innovations in School Foodservice funded a portion of this research.
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