School gardens, such as this one at Fairview Elementary in Denver, help reduce student resistance to healthier cafeteria meals, according to a recent study.

Redesigning school menus to be healthier and less reliant on processed foods makes sense but schools that want to influence long-term changes in students’ dietary habits should do more, a new report concludes.

For schools to more significantly influence their students’ food choices, they need to combine healthy lunchroom offerings with school gardens and cooking classes and integrate principles of good nutrition into all academic subjects, say researchers at the Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

Failing that makes it more challenging to entice students to try new foods, to pack their own low-fat lunches, to regularly eat the healthful fare provided at school and to lobby for similarly healthful meals at home.

The report – Evaluation of the School Lunch Initiative: Changing Students’ Knowledge, Attitudes and Behavior in Relation to Food – examines the progress made in just one school district, the Berkeley Unified School District in California. But the findings do have broad implications for Colorado.

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Click here or scroll to the bottom to see the key recommendations from Berkeley researchers.

For one, the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley was the brainchild of Ann Cooper, the nationally renowned “Renegade Lunch Lady,” who was Nutrition Services Director for BUSD before coming to the Boulder Valley School District in 2008 to revamp that local school district’s lunchroom offerings. Boulder Valley has been among the leaders in Colorado in jumping on the national school lunchroom reform bandwagon, along with Denver Public Schools.

For another, while Boulder Valley and DPS have been among the most aggressive in changing the nature of school meals, districts across the state have launched changes to one degree or another, including training school food personnel in scratch cooking, adding salad bars, banning sodas and flavored milks, and attempting to offer more Colorado-grown fresh produce and meats.

A much smaller number of schools have planted school gardens or partnered with outside organizations to offer cooking classes to students, in hopes of introducing them to healthful new foods and helping them develop a taste for the nutritious. Others have begun offering wellness classes or have built nutrition curriculum into P.E. or health classes.

Integration is key

The Berkeley study indicates that schools that manage to integrate cooking, gardening and classroom instruction along with improved lunchroom fare will produce the greatest long-term positive changes in students’ diets and lifestyle, and will see less student resistance to changed menus that no longer include tasty but unhealthy favorites.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • Parents with children in schools with highly developed programs – those that coupled improvements in school lunch with classroom learning and cooking and gardening classes – were more than twice as likely to say the school affected their child’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior in relation to food.
  • Preference for fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, was far greater in schools with highly developed programs than in schools without. In fact, younger students in the highly developed schools increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by nearly one and a half servings per day.
  • Middle school students exposed to highly developed programs were more likely to feel good about eating food served at school, to like the cafeteria, to think that produce tastes better in season, and to agree that eating choices can help or hurt the environment.

Also, the percentage of students complaining that the new lunchroom offerings were not as tasty as the old menu steadily decreased, from 18.5 percent the first year to 9.1 percent by the third year.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students who felt the new menu was tastier than the old steadily rose, from 7.7 percent the first year to 27.3 percent by the third.

Overcoming student reluctance

Student distaste for some of the new healthy lunchroom options has been a problem in Boulder Valley and elsewhere. School officials say it’s normal for sales of school lunches to fall – and especially for milk sales to initially plummet if chocolate milk is no longer an option – but that they expect sales to gradually rise as students adjust to the changes. In Boulder Valley, the school nutrition program lost $360,000 last year because of decreased sales. This Sept. 13 story from the Boulder Daily Camera documents the problem.

Ann Cooper has a national following as the "Renegade Lunch Lady" and school food consultant.

Cooper remains confident that the changes in Boulder Valley school menus will ultimately prove successful, even though the district doesn’t offer much in the way of experiential learning related to food. She says only about a quarter of the district’s schools have gardens, and many fewer offer cooking classes.

“In a perfect world, I would have cooking and gardening classes in all the schools, in all grades,” she said. “Berkeley has a much higher population of free and reduced price lunch students than Boulder does. That makes a difference.

“But the importance of experiential learning to get children to change their eating patterns correlates no matter where you are. That transcends income levels. And the idea that kids actually do take home what they learn in the school cafeteria is a great lesson.”

Cooper says without cooking and gardening classes to entice youngsters to try new foods, the lunchroom staff just has to work harder to make the meals appealing. One strategy is to offer free “tastings,” so children can sample new dishes to pique their interest.

“It may take longer, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” she said. “Big business is spending $20 billion a year marketing non-nutrients to kids, marketing junk food. When you have experiential learning, your road to success is smoother and faster, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have success without it.”

Cooper also insists that despite dropping lunch sales in some schools, for every complaint she gets nine compliments about the food now being served in Boulder. “And the complaint emails I get aren’t all about the food, but about the short lunch periods, or having recess after lunch she said.”

“I’ve only been here 14 months,” she said. “I’m not sure what will come next, but we are continuing to raise the quality and to get really good food to kids every day. Over time, we will get more kids to eat.”

New menus a hit in DPS

In Denver, the changes to the school lunch menus seem to have increased – not decreased – student sales. Leo Lesh,  DPS director of food and nutrition services, reports that during the first three weeks of school, lunch sales were up 4 percent over the same period last year, and in those schools that have moved to scratch cooking, sales are up 6 percent.

“The district has grown so some of that is just more new kids in the system,” he said. “But we don’t have 6 percent more new kids.”

DPS lunchroom workers spent time in culinary classes over the summer to learn some scratch cooking basics, as the district moves aggressively to improve its lunchroom fare.

Lesh said DPS has followed a different philosophy than Boulder Valley.

“We haven’t been pushing organics, and we haven’t been as prohibitive as Ann has,” he said. “Our kids still have a choice of flavored milk that’s been reformulated to have less sugar. Kids want that choice. Most likely, the only time a kid will get flavored milk is at school because parents don’t usually buy chocolate milk at home. If they drink more milk, they’ll drink less soda. And milk has more nutrients in it. You don’t get calcium in water. You do get it in milk, even in flavored milk.”

Lesh said DPS has also avoided investing in organic food because he wants to make it easy for parents to emulate what’s served in school cafeterias. “We know a lot won’t buy organics because they don’t have the money. But the idea of making a wholesome meal from scratch is something everybody can do.”

Lesh wishes more schools had gardens, but he says even those that do don’t always succeed at getting youngsters into it.

“It helps to have nutrition education, and a garden where kids can see where their food is coming from. But not that many kids get involved,” he said. “It’s boring to many of them. If you had a ton of kids involved, that would help, but I don’t think a garden is something that has to be there.

“But the education, the choices you offer in the cafeteria, seeing things prepared from scratch, offering better quality food – do that and kids will naturally gravitate to the cafeteria.”

Using pyschology to boost sales

Like Boulder Valley, DPS tries to offer “tastings” of its new menu offerings to lure children into sampling things they may never have eaten at home before. Lunchroom workers also try to use some psychology to market their foods.

“It’s little things, like making sure the fruit is placed in colorful bowls instead of stainless steel,” Lesh said. “And we have our people wear uniforms, chef coats, to make them look and act more professional. This goes a long way in the perception of our customers.”

DPS isn’t alone in applying child psychology to lunchroom marketing. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new $2 million initiative to hire food behavior scientists to find betters ways of making healthy school lunches more appealing to students while subtly discouraging unhealthy treats.

Among the strategies some places are employing: keeping ice cream in freezers without glass tops so it’s out of sight; placing salad bars next to checkout registers, so students waiting in line to pay will have more time to consider getting a salad; and express lines for healthier foods.

The three-year study of the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley, Calif., concluded with a number of recommendations for districts. Among them:

  • Sustain an integrated approach. Continue to create synergies between school food and garden and cooking classes. Further develop curriculum integration with core academic subjects.
  • Ensure teaching and regular student attendance in school gardens and kitchen classrooms. It is not enough to build a school garden or kitchen classroom. Paid staff to conduct hands-on learning in these environments with children attending regularly is critical.
  • Maintain programming into middle school. Middle school is often a time when eating habits worsen. Continued learning and availability of healthy food options can overcome the pull toward poor habits.
  • Reach out to parents and community members. More insight is needed to understand why children and not helping with cooking meals and home.
  • Devise ways to improve the quality of food brought from home to school, including food brought for celebrations, fund-raisers and other events.
  • Explore ways to increase student physical activity during garden and cooking classes.
  • Reinforce a wide variety of healthy eating behaviors. This means emphasis on reducing the consumption of low-quality processed foods and sweetened beverages along with practical tips about obtaining and choosing high-quality foods.