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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Iowa Research Helps Families Understand State’s School Lunch Changes

New research from the University of Iowa College of Public Health found that, while a majority of the parents 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.

“I was very surprised to learn how strongly parents felt about school lunches,” says Dr. Natoshia 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 did not 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 Dr. Askelson, an associate research scientist in the Public Policy Center and CPH alumna (PhD ’08).

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.

Dr. 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 Dr. Askelson’s team to make the campaign resources available online.