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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Iowa Research Improves School Lunches for K-12 Students

University of Iowa College of Public Health researchers are participating in the Healthy Schools-Healthy Students program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to encourage K-12 students to eat more nutritious lunches more often. The program uses classroom education, training for food service staff, and modeling and counseling by students to encourage healthy behaviors.

The program in Iowa is administered by the Iowa Department of Education and evaluated by the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Its goal is to use strategies proven by research to reduce childhood obesity, provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students who may not have regular access to them, and establish good eating habits for life.

“Research has shown that if you get kids eating spinach and broccoli and other nutritious foods when they’re young, they’re more likely to eat them for life,” says Dr. Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor of community and behavioral health in the College of Public Health who oversees the program at the University of Iowa. She and a group of UI students have been working with 10 high schools, 10 middle schools, and 10 elementary schools in two-year cycles since 2013 to implement strategies and measure results. The program wraps up in May 2019.

While the USDA program is national, Dr. Askelson says the University of Iowa focuses on rural school districts that have unique challenges due to their often remote locations. For instance, urban and suburban districts may employ or have access to registered dietitians who can work with school menu planners, and chefs who can develop meals that respond to students’ high expectations. Rural school districts rarely have access to those professional resources, Dr. Askelson says.

More importantly, Dr. Askelson says rural school districts may not receive daily deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables because of their location. In some districts, vendors deliver food only once a week, if that.

And while all school district food service operations work on tight budgets, the challenges are particularly acute in rural districts. Preparing fresh fruits and vegetables can be time-consuming—for example, someone has to cut, peel, and prepare it, which requires personnel who have to be paid. It’s easier and more cost-effective to open large cans of green beans and warm them on the stove, Dr. Askelson says.

But students aren’t as likely to eat canned beans as they are fresh beans. This is especially troublesome in rural districts where a higher percentage of students are obese and consume fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. A district faces an even greater budget strain if it purchases fresh food that students are more likely to throw in the trash. “Interventions that work in urban areas don’t always work in rural areas,” Dr. Askelson says.

The program has two components: one in the lunchroom and one in fourth-grade classrooms using a nutrition education curriculum called Serving Up My Plate. The curriculum introduces the importance of eating from all five food groups every day through a variety of hands-on, interactive activities. In the lunchroom, students are encouraged to make healthier choices. That can mean improving the quality of the food, designing the cafeteria so it’s a more inviting place to eat, or making nutritious food more readily available.

Dr. Askeslon says the UI College of Public Health students work with school kitchen managers on the cafeteria itself. The way that food is arranged, for instance, can determine what kind of food students are more apt to grab. The Clear Creek Amana School District, which has schools in Tiffin, Amana, and North Liberty, found that putting chocolate milk in the back of the cooler increases consumption of healthier white milk that’s easier to reach. Putting cookies on a lower, less accessible shelf reduces consumption because students have to bend down, which is just enough extra effort to act as a deterrent.

Ms. Michele McCoy, nutrition director in the Lisbon Community School District that is part of the UI project as well as the Springville Community School District, says she rearranged the food serving line in Lisbon High School to put the more nutritious food first and the less healthy food at the end.

“When the students first come in, there’s a full fruit bar and a veggie bar before they get to the main entrée,” she says. “That’s made a huge difference because more students are filling up on fruits and vegetables instead.”

Dr. Askelson says research also shows that improving lighting or adding color to a cafeteria makes it a more inviting, less stressful environment that can lead to better choices.

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