Seventy percent of elementary school leaders nationwide reported that students generally like the healthier school lunches that rolled out in fall 2012, according to a first-of-its-kind national study whose lead author is now a research associate professor at Boise State University.
"The updated meals standards are resulting in healthier meals for tens of millions of kids," said Lindsey Turner, a co-investigator for Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study. The study is being published online today in Childhood Obesity.
"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," said Turner, who joined Boise State earlier this summer. At the time of the study, she was a research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Bridging the Gap is jointly conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Michigan.
Researchers conducted the nationally representative surveys in spring 2013, roughly six months after healthier meal standards put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture went into effect. Researchers analyzed survey responses from 557 elementary schools across the country.
Most respondents were either principals or school food service providers. They were asked about students' initial reaction to the meals in fall 2012, and how things were progressing a few months later.
About half of respondents at elementary schools (56 percent) reported that students complained at first, but student acceptance greatly increased by spring 2013. The research on elementary schools included findings about student purchases and how much of the meals students were consuming. A majority of elementary school respondents (84 percent) said about the same number of students, or more, were buying lunch during the 2012-13 school year as did during the previous school year. Seventy-nine percent said elementary school students were eating about the same amount or more of the lunch as they did the prior year. This is important because there have been concerns that many students would stop buying lunches, or would throw away much of the lunches, but that is not what the study results show.
Researchers also found differences based on school location and socioeconomic characteristics:
• Respondents at schools with more students from lower-income families reported increases in the percentages of students buying lunch, compared with decreases at higher socio-economic status schools.
• Respondents from urban and suburban elementary 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.
• Respondents did not perceive much change in the amount of food students were discarding. There was less plate waste in elementary schools with a large proportion of students from lower-income families.
- Lindsey Turner, and Frank J. Chaloupka. Perceived Reactions of Elementary School Students to Changes in School Lunches after Implementation of the United States Department of Agriculture’s New Meals Standards: Minimal Backlash, but Rural and Socioeconomic Disparities Exist. Childhood Obesity, August 2014 DOI: 10.1089/chi.2014.0038
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