Research helps Iowa families understand school lunch changes

By Cindy Hadish

Published on July 28, 2014

Natoshia Askelson has conducted research on the HPV vaccine, teen pregnancy prevention, and other hot-button topics, but none elicited the response she received from a survey on the new school lunch program.

“I was very surprised to learn how strongly parents felt about school lunches,” says Askelson, who led the study to determine Iowa parents’ knowledge and perceptions of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. She cites one open-ended question that generated 270 pages of comments. “I didn’t expect that level of engagement,” she says.

The study, conducted by the College of Public Health and University of Iowa Public Policy Center for the Iowa Department of Education, used an online survey to gauge the opinions of parents of school-aged children regarding the federal school lunch guidelines that were implemented in August 2012. The landmark legislation marked the most extensive changes to school lunches in decades, such as requiring a greater variety of vegetables and substantially increasing whole grain foods.

The survey’s goal was to better understand the knowledge and attitudes surrounding the recent school meal changes, explains Askelson, an associate research scientist in the Public Policy Center and CPH alumna (PhD ’08).

Meal Misgivings

The researchers, which included College of Public Health students Elizabeth Golembiewski and Daniel Elchert, learned that not only is there misinformation about the new guidelinesfor example, some respondents erroneously thought First Lady Michelle Obama developed the rulesbut also that parents have their own ideas about which foods are nutritious. For instance, one mother was disappointed that her child was not receiving meat and potatoes at every meal. Others reported that their children said they were “starving” at school, given the smaller portion sizes under the new guidelines.

In total, 2,189 respondents took the online survey, which was distributed by schools via email, on school web sites, and as information sent home with students. The parents, representing 139 districts and 12 private/parochial schools across the state, answered a series of questions regarding the school lunch program at their oldest child’s school, given that school staff indicated younger children were less concerned about the changes. Just 8 percent reported their children participated in the free- or reduced-cost lunch program. The survey questions were developed based on previous research conducted with school administrators and staff, as well as information gathered from other states.

Askelson says she was surprised by how much parents and students talk about school lunches. According to the survey, 84 percent of parents were aware of the changes to the school lunch program and, of those, 75 percent said their child had talked to them about the changes.

Informing Families

In general, however, parents were uninformed about the basis of the changes, why the guidelines are important, and what it means for students’ health.

“There is a lot of education to be done,” Askelson says.

To help inform families and get them involved in their children’s school nutrition program, the research team used the survey findings to develop the School Meal Parent Campaign. The campaign, created in collaboration with CPH designer Patti O’Neill, includes nutrition information, newsletters, recipes, fact sheets, and other resources under the tagline, “It’s Not Just School Lunch. It’s Bigger Than That.”

Askelson says one of the goals is to have parents encourage their children to try new foods and make healthy choices, which carries over to eating at home. The Iowa Department of Education, which funded the research through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, worked with Askelson’s team to make the campaign resources available online.

The study concluded that while a majority of the parents surveyed are aware of changes to school meals and regularly communicate with their child about school lunches, opinions are mixed on whether the changes are effective in providing students what they want and need in terms of taste and nutrition.

“Parents overwhelmingly agree that the school lunch should be composed of fresh, nutritious food, yet do not believe this need is being met,” the report states.

In addition, while almost half of the parents agree that school lunches are “healthy,” a list of common concerns emerged on the survey, including smaller or inadequate portions and their impacts to student performance; off site and pre-packaged meal preparation; wasting of undesirable food; and poor food taste and quality.

Next Steps

One of the team’s next steps is to determine how school districts are implementing the policy, so those that are more successful can provide guidance for other districts, and those that are struggling can indicate where support is needed.

In-depth telephone interviews are being conducted with rural food service directors to better understand the unique challenges they face, such as time, space, and funding, Askelson adds. The study is being conducted in conjunction with CPH alumna Disa Cornish (MS ’05) at the University of Northern Iowa Center for Social and Behavioral Research, with funding from the UI Prevention Research Center for Rural Health.

Also, given that Iowa ranks near the bottom in the school breakfast program participation, the Iowa Department of Education would like to encourage high school and middle school students to eat breakfast at school.

“There’s a lot of national attention on adolescents and breakfast,” says Askelson. “Research is highlighting the importance of breakfast for teens related to health, school performance, and behavior issues.”

The most important message gleaned from the research, Askelson says, is that “parents care deeply about this” and want their children to have healthy meals served at school.

“We’d like to take some of that energy that we discovered and fuel it in a productive way,” she says.