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School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children
Making a substantial change in menus for the school meal programs calls for a holistic approach to the entire food service operation. A strategic plan that introduces change incrementally over a realistic time frame—one developed with the involvement of key stakeholders—is desirable. The foremost concern of all operators is the possibility that modifications may negatively affect student participation. Especially in the current economy, any loss of revenue based on decreased participation presents a real threat to the financial stability of the program. Operators are acutely aware of student preferences; they know that students often decide whether or not to eat a school meal based on what is on the menu and not on hunger alone. Thus, careful consideration needs to be given to many aspects of implementing change.
Community-level strategies that can be used to promote change include engaging the school community, peer involvement, nutrition education, parental and community involvement, the training of food service workers and the involvement of the food industry. Brief summaries of these topics appear below. Some studies illustrate measures that improve the acceptance of more healthful foods outside the school setting. For example, Garey et al. (1990), Hinkle et al. (2008), and Wechsler et al. (1998) describe strategies for increasing the acceptance of milk products with lower fat content, several of which are similar to the strategies described below. Key factors that may be beyond the school food operators’ control but that influence student acceptance of the food offered include the time of the meal and the amount of time allowed for obtaining and eating the meal, the eating spaces available, the timing of recess, and access to competitive foods. “Making It Happen” (http://teamnutrition.usda.gov/resources/makingithappen.html), a joint project of USDA and Health and Human Services, is a source of locally tested ideas for improving the nutritional quality of all foods and beverages offered and sold on school campuses.
Engaging the School Community
Engaging the school community in the implementation of the new recommendations is essential. Several interventions noted the importance of formative research with the target audiences. For example, strategies that engage the school community include taste testing for the students to