UC Berkeley study shows interventions affect school lunch participation

Photo of healthy school lunches in Arlington, Virginia for the National School Lunch Program
US Department of Agriculture/Creative Commons
According to the study, the perception that school lunches tasted good and were enough to make students feel full increased by 0.2 points on a five-point scale among 8th graders in schools with intervention.

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A study led by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found that certain interventions affected students’ perceptions of school lunches and school lunch participation, but economic conditions may have a larger effect.

The three-year study was published in August and involved a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District to find out what may increase participation in school lunch programs for middle and high school students, according to study co-author Hannah Thompson, a Community Health Sciences research scientist at the School of Public Health.

A total of 24 schools in the district participated in the study, with 12 schools being subject to interventions such as cafeteria redesign, education for teachers on school lunches and increased points of sale through vending machines and food carts, Thompson added.

“While interventions helped stave off the decline of student lunch participation, a big conclusion of this study is that larger economic policies and conditions are actually much more impactful on participation,” Thompson said.

The study found that there was an overall decline in school lunch participation among eligible students across the school district over the past three years, as schools with interventions experienced a 1.8% decline and schools without interventions experienced a 4.9% decline.

Additionally, there was a drop from 72% to 58% in reduced-price meal eligibility among students, according to the study.

According to Thompson, the biggest reason for the decline in school lunch participation was a policy change that raised the minimum wage in San Francisco beginning the summer of 2015. This reduced the number of students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches

Overall, the study showed that the interventions had modest effects on students’ perceptions of school lunches. The perception that school lunches tasted good and were enough to make students feel full increased by 0.2 points on a five-point scale among 8th graders in schools with intervention, according to study co-author Lorrene Ritchie, director of the Nutrition Policy Institute at the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, or UCANR.

“We found that these positive perceptions towards school lunch also increased reports of consumption of fruits and vegetables among students very modestly,” Ritchie said.

Among schools subject to intervention, there was a 6% increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables per day for 10th graders and an increase of 0.1 cups of fruits and vegetables per day for 9th graders, Ritchie said.

According to the study, however, the results of intervention on school lunch participation remain limited. The study’s findings reveal the need to explore what additional factors should be addressed to further increase student uptake of school lunches, according to co-author Marisa Neelon, nutrition, family and consumer sciences adviser at UCANR.

“Increasing participation and consumption of school meals can potentially address the shortfall in adolescent’s intake of fruits and vegetables,” Neelon said in an email. “Additionally, the closure of schools due to COVID-19 has elevated the importance of school meals to meet the nutritional needs of food-insecure families.”

Contact Annika Constantino at [email protected].