School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Student Nutrition

Survey explores progress, challenges three years into transition to healthier food standards

School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Student Nutrition
Innovation in school food choices

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School meal programs and the individuals who run them have come under intense scrutiny in recent years as they planned for and implemented the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s healthier standards for foods and drinks offered to the nation’s students. But it is not just breakfast and lunch menus that have changed; vending machine options, a la carte lines, food-based fundraising practices, and more are being improved to meet the updated school nutrition rules that began to take effect in the 2012-13 school year (SY).

Studies of schools in three states—Connecticut, Texas, and Washington—show that under the updated standards, children’s eating habits are improving, which is a core goal of these strengthened policies. Students of all ages are choosing lunches higher in nutritional quality and lower in calories per gram and consuming more fruits and larger shares of their entrees and vegetables. Some studies also measured plate waste—the food taken and later discarded by kids—and found that it stayed the same or declined after the transition to healthier menus.

National nutrition standards influence many facets of school meal program operations, including menu planning, cooking and serving procedures, food costs, marketing strategies, and student participation rates. To investigate how updated requirements affect these areas and programs’ overall success, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—commissioned the School Meal Approaches, Resources, and Trends (SMART) Study, a national survey of 489 school nutrition directors representing school food authorities (SFAs) across the country. All respondents participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and nearly all took part in the School Breakfast Program (SBP). A separate group of 11 food service directors—the SMART Expert Panel, selected by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project for their records of success in navigating the updated standards—reviewed the results and provided insights on the reported challenges and strategies to address common barriers.

This report explores the survey results on SFA directors’ perspectives on meal and snack nutrition requirements and on districts’ experiences implementing the updated standards near the end of SY 2014-15. It reveals that many districts have emerged from the most challenging phase of the transition to healthier meals. The key findings from the survey are:

  • 6 in 10 directors said they faced only a few or no ongoing obstacles to meeting updated breakfast requirements; 4 in 10 said the same of the lunch guidelines.
  • For breakfast and lunch, the commonly cited challenges were two rules that took effect in SY 2014-15: tighter limits on weekly average sodium content and a requirement that any food counted as a grain serving be made from at least 50 percent whole grains.
  • Most programs use a mix of strategies—three, on average—to encourage students to eat nutritious meals. Nine in 10 adopted at least one practice to raise children’s fruit and vegetable consumption. For example, almost two-thirds of directors who increased the use of salad bars said that kids ate more produce as a result.
  • Respondents said that holding taste tests with students and redistributing uneaten, sealed foods were among the most effective ways to reduce waste. But only 44 percent and 38 percent of programs, respectively, used these strategies.
  • Directors whose programs prepared more foods from scratch and increased the use of salad bars were more likely to report that student participation rose or was unchanged from SY 2011-12 to 2014-15. Conversely, declines in participation were seen most often by directors who purchased more commercially prepared foods or decreased menu options.
  • Directors reported uneven progress toward district-wide compliance with the Smart Snacks in School (Smart Snacks) nutrition standards, which govern items sold in cafeteria a la carte lines, vending machines, snack bars, and at fundraisers. Two-thirds of respondents said that all food and beverages sold by their departments met the standards in SY 2014-15. But only 2 in 10 reported that the same was true for products sold by other departments and school groups.
  • Equipment and labor costs were the most frequently reported financial concerns (38 percent and 33 percent, respectively).
  • 84 percent of program directors reported rising or stable combined revenue (meal reimbursements plus snack and beverage sales) in the past year. More than half (54 percent) of districts saw higher combined revenue in SY 2014-15 compared with a year earlier. Almost a third (30 percent) said total revenue remained level.
School meal programs
Panelists agreed that healthy eating behaviors are best promoted through active strategies, such as cooking demonstrations and taste tests with students and working with administrators to change the cafeteria environment or lunch schedules.

Reflecting on these results, the expert panel noted that running a school nutrition program is analogous to running a successful business: Directors reported constantly updating and expanding their menus and employing creative strategies to keep their customers—the students—happy. Sharing recipes, vendors, and purchasing responsibilities across schools and districts has helped them successfully navigate the transition to healthier meals, and buy-in from administrators and parents was also vital to success.

Panelists agreed that healthy eating behaviors are best promoted through active strategies, such as cooking demonstrations and taste tests with students and working with administrators to change the cafeteria environment or lunch schedules so students have enough time to eat. They also said that celebrating their accomplishments through local media and direct outreach to school officials, families, and the community generated positive perceptions of the program and support for efforts to serve healthier foods to students.

This report describes the survey findings and panelists’ insights and offers recommendations to states, districts, vendors, families, and communities to enhance meal programs’ success in implementing updated nutrition standards and encouraging healthy eating among students. By prioritizing nutrition as part of a culture of health in educational settings and in funding and policy decisions, policymakers can ensure that students have access to nutritious food. At the same time, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, as well as parents, can build a network of community support for school meal programs and their critical role in children’s lifelong health.

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