Measuring the “success” of healthy school meals

Oct 7, 2011 by

by Dana Woldow

A recent op-ed in the LA Times described the progress thus far of the new LAUSD school meal program. It is far too early to come to any conclusions about how popular the new healthier school lunches are with the only people who matter, the students. Still, the author expressed cautious optimism about the program’s success, saying that “early indications are that students are embracing the new choices.” Intrigued, I e-mailed the author, Professor Robert Gottlieb of Occidental College’s Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, to ask for more details on what these “early indications” might be. Were more kids choosing the school lunch than at the same time last year?

Not surprisingly, Gottlieb responded that the changes are too recent to have produced any kind of definitive data, but that studies of participation in the meal program, plate waste (the amount of food students throw away uneaten at the end of the meal) and other factors, like cost, would be ongoing. He indicated that his evidence that students are “embracing” the new choices was anecdotal.

Of course, there is also anecdotal evidence that some parents and kids don’t like the new menu, but that is to be expected. Whenever there is change, there are going to be those who support it and those who reject it. It seems logical, then, to try to judge the success of the new meal program by its popularity, and declare it a success only if more students now choose to eat school lunch than ate previously with the less healthy menu.

Focusing too much on the issue of increasing participation in the school meal program may be myopic. Certainly higher participation is a worthy goal, and it is an easier sell to tell the community that this or that change has resulted in more kids eating school meals. Higher school meal participation would be beneficial from a financial perspective, from an anti-hunger perspective and also from a social justice perspective. More kids choosing school meals (especially if they are not low income students qualified to receive free or reduced price meals) helps to dissipate the stigma which still hovers around the school lunch program, the idea that if you are seen entering the cafeteria at lunchtime, that brands you as “poor” in the eyes of your peers.

However, in ten years of involvement with this issue, I have never seen a school district that was able to substantially increase the number of kids eating, unless they do a universal feeding (everyone eats free) model. Even in Berkeley, famous for their Edible Schoolyard and all of the good work that Chef Ann Cooper did improving their menu, they have not substantially increased the number of kids eating school lunch; the participation dropped quite a bit when they switched to the healthier food years ago, then gradually it has come back up again to about where it was before the switch. The only real big increase they have seen is in the school breakfast program, where they give it away free to all comers in the K-8 classrooms. That’s why they now talk about how they serve 9,000 “meals” a day, when they used to talk about serving “about 3,000 lunches” a day – because the 6,000 meal increase is almost entirely the breakfasts.

Too much focus on increasing participation can come around to bite you in the end. It would be great to get more kids to choose school meals, but even if they don’t, isn’t it enough that the kids who were eating before, and who are continuing to rely on the school meals for most of their daily nourishment, are now getting a vastly better meal? After all, these are often the kids from the most challenged circumstances, the ones whose families don’t have something at home to tuck into a brown bag and send to school in their child’s backpack. These are usually low income children of color, who are at much greater risk for obesity-related complications like diabetes and high blood pressure, and all too often they are also the ones who have the misfortune to fall on the wrong side of the achievement gap. Why isn’t it enough that these kids get a better school meal? Why does success always have to be measured in how many additional kids are brought into the program?

All of the studies LAUSD will conduct – plate waste, average daily participation, etc. – are important, and I hope that the numbers bear out the idea that more kids are eating the better food. But if they don’t, I hope the point gets made that when a school meal program like LAUSD is serving 670,000 lunches a day, even if healthier food doesn’t attract more kids to the program, it still means that 670,000 kids (many/most of them already at risk for health and academic complications) are getting better nutrition, and maybe that is enough to justify the better food.

Dana Woldow has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. She shares what she has learned at peachsf.org.

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