Healthier school meal guidelines take effect

The US Department of Agriculture introduced new guidelines for school meals that take effect this school year, the biggest change for lunch-line workers in about 15 years.


Strict calorie and sodium limits are in effect, schools have to offer dark green, orange, or red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, and students have to pick at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. In addition, any flavored milk products must be non-fat. The new guidelines also limit the trans fat levels in meals.

This change is driving schools and district food service employees to come up with some creative ways to meet the new guidelines.

One way is to get food from local farmers instead of processed food from national supply chains, as the Columbus Dispatch reports. Ohio’s farm-to-school movement is growing, because schools have an incentive—the federal guidelines—to get access to local growers. Of course, “farm-to-school” just specifies that food is purchased from local farmers, not the type of food. Schools in Ohio buy beef from local farmers as well as veggies. Farm-to-school programs bring huge benefits, including

  • The food is real food, not processed food
  • The money flows back into the local economy

“It’s not about how much money we are making off the school,” the Dispatch quoted one farmer as saying. “It’s about being part of the community, teaching kids from a young age, there’s so much to be said for keeping your money local.”

The guidelines themselves are a response to research about school lunches. Kids may not realize this when they’re in the cafeteria, but their buying behavior is studied closely, sometimes with hidden cameras, folks who analyze the garbage kids throw away, and so on.

One study, published in the March issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, concluded that

Public-sector stakeholders have missed opportunities to promote healthy eating environments for young people. Government could optimally use all policy tools—incentives and disincentives, education, legislation, regulation, and legal actions. Schools could more effectively engage parents, promote national nutrition standards and available guidelines, provide technical assistance, require mandatory reporting of wellness policies, and evaluate collective efforts.

More effectively engaging parents

This means, of course, more than schools reaching out to parents at home, although you have to admit, it’s a struggle to provide healthy choices in the home as well. This has led parents to seek support from schools, as we read in this research in the February issue of Acta Paediatrica.

But it also means parents can come into the school and support the school’s nutrition efforts. Some schools, like the Hopkins Public Schools in Minnetonka, Minn., use parent volunteers as “food coaches” who show kids how to eat healthy food. For example, if kids have only eaten chicken as nuggets or patties for a sandwich, they may not know how to eat chicken that still has the bones in it. Or, they may not know how to make salads exciting and tasty other than by smothering them with dressing. The goals of Hopkins Public Schools food coaches are to

  • Increase the number of kids who taste new foods during lunch in the school cafeteria
  • Increase fruit and vegetable intake among students during the lunch period
  • Increase knowledge of food options available at lunch in the school cafeteria

Promoting nutrition standards

The use of the word ‘promote’ directs our thoughts to marketing tactics. And when it comes to food, grocery stores know more about this than anyone, so it seems logical that schools would do a little research about how grocery stores market food.

Of course, we all know the common technique of putting the cereal in one aisle and putting the milk at the other end of the store. This technique assures the store owners that people will pass by everything in the store if they come in for cereal and milk. Schools can make use of the trick if space allows.

Or, impulse buying happens most commonly as people are waiting to pay at the checkout lanes. This is where you can find things that won’t add much to the total bill, because people are more likely to purchase them as they wait to pay. Schools could, for example, set up fruits near the cashier in the lunch line.

But what could lead students to purchase one healthy item compared to an unhealthy one? One recent study, published in this month’s edition of the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, for example, found that the characteristics of the product had a greater influence on retail impulse buying than retailing factors. In other words, schools would increase the likelihood of students buying healthy foods if they made the foods themselves more appealing, especially if the appeal were directed at students’ emotions.

And although factors like a high-low price comparison had a measurable effect in the study, it wasn’t a large effect. That is, schools could make unhealthy foods more expensive than healthy foods, but if they had to pick just one strategy, they should figure out how to make healthy food appeal to children’s emotions.

Cigarette manufacturers, a long long time ago, realized this, as they delivered print and billboard ads that made it “cool” to smoke. Although the products were different and marketed long before the current research, marketers who wanted to sell cigarettes knew the power of appealing to emotions.

Some schools have brought in marketing consultants of their own. To help market school breakfasts, the USDA even published a colorful pamphlet (PDF). Although school food service really is a business, operating with incomes and expenses, most school food service directors don’t consider “marketing” their products, according to this USDA publication. The document contains sample ads and flyers, newsletter inserts (one for every month), and other things you could use to develop marketing campaigns, with or without your own consultant.

Providing technical assistance

Along those same lines, helping students make healthy food choices would mean first educating them about the healthy food choices. Technically speaking, is it better to cook the chicken in a deep fryer or in an oven? Why is it better to eat this type of cookie than that chocolate bar? How many calories does this slice of pizza have?

Kids and their parents need good information in order to make healthy choices. Even the desire to make healthy choices doesn’t mean anything if people don’t have the information to make those healthy choices.

Requiring reporting of wellness policies

It’s more important to execute good wellness policies than it is to report them, but sometimes putting your plans and accomplishments in writing, say in an article in the school newspaper, can help with the execution.

Evaluating collective efforts

Finally, take a look around at other schools. What are they doing to promote the new school meal guidelines? How can their successful tactics be used at your school?

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.