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Press release

Parent Perceptions of School Meals Influence Student Participation in School Meal Programs

Philadelphia | April 15, 2024

A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior suggests that the way parents view school meals can impact how likely their children are to participate in meal programs at school.

Since the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, school meals in the United States have significantly improved. Several factors have been reported to impact student participation in school meals, including parental perceptions of school breakfast and lunch. A recent research articleopens in new tab/window in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavioropens in new tab/window, published by Elsevier, assessed the association between parent perspectives on the school meal program and student participation.

Researcher Monica D. Zuercher, PhD, MS, Nutrition Policy Institute, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California, explained, "Because on average school meals offer better nutrition than other sources of food consumed by American children, maximizing meal participation is a priority."

This study involved 1,110 parents, guardians, and caregivers in California with at least one child in grades kindergarten through 12th grade attending a public or charter school in the state. The sample reflects the characteristics of California school students with regard to race and ethnicity, region, and free or reduced-price meal eligibility. Parents responded to an online survey sharing their feedback on school meals during the school year 2021-22 when school meals were free for all students nationwide. The survey comprised 10 screening questions (e.g., state, county, ethnicity, race, type of school, household size, and household income) to determine eligibility and collect demographic data, followed by 34 questions assessing various aspects of school meal programs. The survey was designed to gather 15 parental perceptions of school meals and was available for self-administration in English or Spanish using Qualtrics software, accessible online via various devices.

Caption: Changing parent perception about school meal programs could boost participation (Credit: WavebreakmediaMicro /Adobe Stock).

Three groups of parental perceptions were identified: (1) positive perceptions (e.g., liking school meals and thinking they are tasty and healthy), (2) perceived benefits to families (e.g., school meals save families money, time, and stress), and (3) negative perceptions (e.g., concerns about the amount of sugar in school meals and stigma associated with low family income or embarrassment). More positive parental perceptions about school meals and their benefits to families were associated with greater student meal participation. In contrast, more negative parental perceptions were associated with reduced student participation in school meals.

Dr. Zuercher commented, "Parent perceptions of school meals appear to influence student participation in school meal programs. Working to ensure parents are familiar with the healthfulness and quality of school meals and the efforts schools are making to provide high-quality, appealing meals may be critical for increasing school meal participation rates.”

Notes for editors

The article is “Parent Perceptions of School Meals Influence Student Participation in School Meal Programs,” by Monica D. Zuercher, PhD, MS; Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScD, ScM; Christina A. Hecht, PhD; Kenneth Hecht, LLB; Dania Orta Aleman, PhD, MPH; Anisha Patel, MD, MSPH, MSHS; Deborah A. Olarte, PhD, RDN; Leah E. Chapman, PhD, MPH; Margaret Read, MA; Marlene B. Schwartz, PhD; Lorrene D. Ritchie, PhD, RDN; and Wendi Gosliner, DrPH, MPH ( in new tab/window). It appears in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Volume 56, Issue 4 (April 2024), published by Elsevier.

The article is openly available at in new tab/window.

This research was funded by California General Fund SB 170. The authors would like to thank the parents who participated in the study and the Nutrition Services Division of the California Department of Education, Galloway Research Service, Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, and Lindsey Turner for providing expertise and guidance for this study. The authors received permission from those named in the acknowledgments.

Full text of the article is also available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 406 1313 or [email protected]opens in new tab/window to obtain a copy or additional information. To schedule an interview with the author(s), please contact Monica D. Zuercher, PhD, MS, Nutrition Policy Institute, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California, at [email protected]opens in new tab/window.

An audio podcast featuring an interview with Monica D. Zuercher, PhD, MS; and other information for journalists are available at Excerpts from the podcast may be reproduced by the media with permission from Eileen Leahy.

About the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB)

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB), the official journal of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB), is a refereed, scientific periodical that serves as a resource for all professionals with an interest in nutrition education and dietary/physical activity behaviors. The purpose of JNEB is to document and disseminate original research, emerging issues, and practices relevant to nutrition education and behavior worldwide and to promote healthy, sustainable food choices. It supports the Society's efforts to disseminate innovative nutrition education strategies, and communicate information on food, nutrition, and health issues to students, professionals, policymakers, targeted audiences, and the public.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior features articles that provide new insights and useful findings related to nutrition education research, practice, and policy. The content areas of JNEB reflect the diverse interests of health, nutrition, education, Cooperative Extension, and other professionals working in areas related to nutrition education and behavior. As the Society's official journal, JNEB also includes occasional policy statements, issue perspectives, and member communications. www.jneb.orgopens in new tab/window

About Elsevier

As a global leader in scientific information and analytics, Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society. We do this by facilitating insights and critical decision-making with innovative solutions based on trusted, evidence-based content and advanced AI-enabled digital technologies.

We have supported the work of our research and healthcare communities for more than 140 years. Our 9,500 employees around the world, including 2,500 technologists, are dedicated to supporting researchers, librarians, academic leaders, funders, governments, R&D-intensive companies, doctors, nurses, future healthcare professionals and educators in their critical work. Our 2,900 scientific journals and iconic reference books include the foremost titles in their fields, including Cell Press, The Lancet and Gray’s Anatomy.

Together with the Elsevier Foundationopens in new tab/window, we work in partnership with the communities we serve to advance inclusion and diversity in science, research and healthcare in developing countries and around the world.

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Eileen Leahy


+1 732 238 3628

E-mail Eileen Leahy