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Weighing Healthier Options

Cafeterias must balance nutrition, cost and more
by James Russell
Illinois School Board Journal, May/June 2004

James Russell is IASB director of communications.

Weighing Healthier OptionsSchool cafeterias in the U.S. serve approximately 4.7 billion meals per year, at an annual cost of $6.3 billion. A significant portion - 58.8 percent - qualify for free or reduced-price subsidies from the federal government. Current reimbursement rates put the value of a free lunch at $2.19.

But at what social cost are these school lunches and breakfasts being served? Some critics believe the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and its younger sibling National School Breakfast Program (NSBP) favor economy over food quality; food management contractors over local authority; brand names over nutrition; and limited school schedules or multi-purpose facilities over healthy eating environments.

Are these trade-offs contributing to the increasing problem of childhood obesity? Is local policy able to counteract any, some, most or all of these factors?

The answers are revealed in various studies conducted by both public and private childhood nutrition groups.

In the 58 years since Congress authorized the National School Lunch Act, many changes have been implemented to expand the benefits and opportunities of providing healthy, affordable meals to America's school children. Today, school foodservice operators serve lunch to 28.8 million children in 99,000 public and private schools and breakfast to 8.4 million children in 77,000 schools every school day, according to the 2004 annual report of the American School Food Service Association.

In fact, since the NSLP began in 1947, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 200 billion school meals have been served. That's a ton of tater tots ... and a lot of dollars for American farmers.

School food programs increased farm production in 2003 by $870 million, according to USDA's Economic Research Service. Another $267 million was generated for farm value (depreciation, etc.). And 7,738 farm jobs were directly related to school nutrition programs.

Combined, the school lunch and breakfast programs spent $3.8 billion in food costs alone in FY 2001. Dairy and meat products accounted for 44 percent of food purchases for school meals; fruit and vegetables accounted for 24 percent.

What's for lunch?

But what are we serving to kids? And how healthy, or unhealthy, is it? If current menus in many schools are any indicator, the answer is probably "not very healthy" as the trend shifts away from traditional site-prepared meals.

The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management published an abstract last fall that examined the current status of brand-name fast food use and associated factors in all 447 Indiana districts. The percentage of food service operators using brand-name fast foods increased from 3 to 24 percent between the 1990-91 and 1998-99 school years. The desire to increase student interest was the primary reason, and most reported a positive impact on a la carte revenue, total profits and student participation.

The brand-name food item most often offered was pizza, followed by burritos and sandwiches.

Among the reasons Indiana school food service operators used brand-name fast foods:

  • Believed students would participate - 73.5 percent
  • Students asked for it - 54.4 percent
  • Desire to reduce plate waste - 17.6 percent
  • District or food authority decision - 16.9 percent
  • Vendor sales idea - 11 percent
  • Reduce costs - 5.9 percent

Branded foods were defined in this study as "the use of nationally or locally labeled products." Three types were identified: manufacturer's branding, restaurant branding and in-house branding. Brand-name fast food served alone does not qualify as a reimbursable school lunch under the NSLP. However, the abstract reported that those foods can be incorporated as part of a reimbursable lunch with other food items.

While these food items must meet USDA nutritional requirements, some fast food companies targeting school markets have introduced modified versions of their products, the report said.

Since 1995, federal nutrition standards require that school lunches and breakfasts limit calories from total fat to 30 percent or less, and saturated fat to less than 10 percent. And while the most recent study of school meals indicates that average fat and saturated-fat content of school lunches has decreased, they still exceed standards, according to a July 2003 Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report.

Although there is no federal regulation currently prohibiting schools participating in the NSLP from serving brand-name fast foods, some states and local districts have such rules. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report cited in this study, 40 percent of the schools not using brand-name fast foods reported local or state regulations as a reason for not serving them.

Among the reasons cited by Indiana school food service operators for not using brand-name fast foods:

  • Cost too much - 65 percent
  • Current menu more nutritious - 54.4 percent
  • Fast food prohibited - 11 percent
  • Good job without it - 7.1 percent
  • Fast food unavailable - 5.5 percent
  • Parents oppose it - 5.2 percent

Not every school sold every branded food item every day; the type, number and frequency increased as school grade levels increased. In fact, most schools offered only one brand-name fast food item four times a month or less.

The conclusion suggested that school food service operators and policymakers "investigate all potential variables before deciding whether to embrace this trend." The report also suggested that fast food companies trying to reach the school market address these same issues "and be willing to adjust their product recipes to accommodate nutritional regulations or concerns."

Lunch is served

The transition from traditional to non-traditional menus is frequently facilitated by a shift to food service management companies.

An increasing number of school districts are switching to food service management companies, under fixed-rate or cost-reimbursable contracts. As of FY 2000, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service estimated that 8.5 percent, or 1,648, of the 19,329 local school food authorities nationwide had contracted with private firms to operate their school lunch and breakfast programs.

Among the larger firms operating in Illinois districts are Sodexho School Services of Middleton, Wisconsin; Preferred Meal Systems of Berkeley, IIllinois; Chartwells School Dining Services of St. Peters, Missouri; Ceres Food Group Inc. of Chicago; Arbor Management Inc. of Addison, Illinois; and ARAMARK School Support Services of Lake Forest, Illinois.

Whether food is prepared and served by private contractors or school food service operators, the challenge to serve healthy meals in a healthy environment remains constant.

But are the kids eating what is offered or chosen?

The best national estimate available from the USDA indicates that about 12 percent of calories from food served to students goes uneaten.

In a report published by its Economic Research Service in March 2002, possible causes may include wide variations in student appetites and energy needs, differences between meals served and student preferences, scheduling constraints and availability of foods from competing sources (vending machines, school stores, etc.)

The report also examined evidence of strategies that may reduce such waste, including the offer versus serve provision (student choice), scheduling lunch before recess and improving food quality.

Not surprisingly, the report found that salad, vegetables and fruit were the most common wasted items. And the cost of this plate waste? According to the ERS report, $600 million per year.

Time to eat

Another factor in the nutrition debate, one frequently mentioned by school food service operators, parents and even students, is time allowed for eating. While studies show a wide variance in the length of school lunch periods, anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, actual eating time was found to be very consistent among students of all ages.

According to "Eating at School," a series of national time studies conducted between 1997 and 1999 for the National Food Service Management Institute, University, Mississippi, students required approximately 10 minutes, on average, to eat their lunch. What varied most, however, were service times (serving, payment, cleanup, etc.) and socializing.

"Socializing is an important aspect of dining because allowing students sufficient time to relate to others provides a break in routine and refreshes them for afternoon classes," the NFSMI reported stated.

Student participation and food choice is also influenced by other factors that food service operators and policymakers need to consider.

Different researchers have identified a number of meta-categories, including the role of sensory attributes, the socio-cultural context, the physical and social environment, marketing, and economic influences, according to another abstract published in Fall 2002 in The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management.

Sensory attributes over food acceptance deal with the appearance, texture and flavor of the food item. Socio-cultural context of food choice include both indirect effects (body image, knowledge and beliefs about food and nutrition, etc.) and direct effects (peers, parents or teachers). The physical environment includes such factors as lighting, decoration and comfort. Marketing involves accessibility of food (display and food service layout), in addition to price and promotion. Economic factors were also identified in the report, involving the family structure (single parent and/or two working parent homes), and discretionary income available for food purchase.

"Altering the school environment by manipulating physical and social dimensions is a very inexpensive and simple alternative that needs to be better understood," the study concluded.

Of these secondary categories, parental beliefs about school meals and nutrition in general may offer the best opportunity for nutrition education advocates to effect behavioral changes in eating habits.

The attitudes, beliefs and intentions to encourage elementary children's participation in the NSLP were studied among students in grades K-3 attending 15 schools in seven southeastern states. Researchers concluded that 79 percent of parents "intended to encourage their child to participate in school lunch," meaning there was a strong correlation between parent intent and child behavior.

But significant gaps between beliefs and importance placed on beliefs were also discovered.

For example, only 31 percent of parents knew how much their child eats in school; 56 percent believed that school lunches were better than sack lunches brought from home; 64 percent believed their child had adequate time to eat at school; and 79 percent agreed that school lunches saved time and were convenient.

Using this data, school food service programs can target parents "using persuasive messages as a way to positively reinforce favorable beliefs, or perhaps even change negative beliefs and encourage participation in the NSLP," the report concluded.

Such messages could assure parents that school meals have:

  • Nutritional content and student preferences in school lunch menus.
  • Pleasant eating environments and adequate time allowed for lunch.
  • Healthy foods that students like.

"Parents should be recognized as influential customers of the NSLP," the Journal abstract continued, adding that they are more likely to support school decisions when they have a voice in those decisions.

Whether a school district prepares and serves its own meals or contracts with vendors, serves or prohibits brand-name foods, alters cafeteria environments, school lunch schedules and lengths, opens or closes campuses during meal hours, enforces or adds to strict nutritional standards, prohibits or allows access to vending machines and school stores, or involves students and parents in the meal planning process, nutrition experts seem to agree: an integrated approach to nutrition education is needed.

Only then can local school board policy and school food service operations make those decisions and accurately reflect the community's values and beliefs toward nutrition choices in the cafeteria.


"Current Status of and Factors Associated With the Use of Brand-Name Fast Foods in Indiana Schools Participating in the National School Lunch Program," Barbara J.H. Yoon, Barbara A. Almanza, Stephen J. Hiemstra, The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, American School Food Service Association, Fall 2003

"Do Healthy School Meals Cost More? Joanne Guthrie, Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report Number 34-6, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, July 2003

"Eating at School: A Summary of NFSMI Research on Time Required by Students to Eat Lunch,"

Martha T. Conklin, Laurel G. Lambert, National Food Service Management Institute, University MS, April 2001

"A Healthy School Meal Environment," Katherine Ralston, Jean Buzby, Joanne Guthrie, Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report Number 34-5, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, July 2003

"Impact of the Environment on Food Choices and Eating Habits of School-Age Children: A USDA-Sponsored Research Agenda Conference," Peter L. Bordi,, The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, American School Food Service Association, Fall 2002

"Importance of Child Nutrition Programs to Agriculture," Kenneth Hanson, Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report Number 34-2, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, July 2003

"Parental Beliefs Toward the National School Lunch Program Related to Elementary Student Participation," Laurel G. Lambert, Martha T. Conklin, J.T. Johnson, The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, American School Food Service Association, Fall 2002

"Plate Waste in School Nutrition Programs: Final Report to Congress," Jean C. Buzby, Joanne F. Guthrie, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, March 2002

Program History and Data, National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Food & Nutrition Service, United States Department of Agriculture, December 2003

2002-03 Annual Report, American School Food Service Association

2003 Exhibitors' Guide, Joint Annual Conference, Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Association of School Business Officials

Weighing Healthier Options



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