Study reveals parent perceptions of school meals associated with student participation in school meals

May 27, 2024

School meals have been shown to be the healthiest source of food for US students on average and have been associated with multiple benefits to students. However, not all students eat school meals, even if they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals based on their family income. This study examined the association between parent perspectives about school meals and student meal participation during the school year 2021-22 in the context of the California Universal School Meals policy. NPI researchers surveyed 1,110 parents of California K-12 students and identified three groups of parental perceptions: positive perceptions (e.g. liking school meals and thinking that they are tasty and healthy), perceived benefits to families (e.g. school meals save families money, time, and stress), and negative perceptions (e.g. concerns about the amount of sugar in school meals and stigma). More positive parental perceptions about school meals and their benefits to families were associated with greater student meal participation, while more negative parental perceptions were associated with reduced student participation in school meals. Overall, study results emphasize that parent perceptions of school meals may affect student participation in school meal programs and that effective communication with parents to ensure parents are familiar with the healthfulness and quality of school meals may be critical for increasing meal participation rates.  A podcast interview with researcher Monica Zuercher and a press release were published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, further explaining the research study findings. The research study was led by NPI researchers Monica Zuercher,  Christina Hecht, Kenneth Hecht, Dania Orta-Aleman, Anisha Patel, Lorrene Ritchie, and Wendi Gosliner, as well as researchers Juliana Cohen, Deborah Olarte, and Leah Chapman with Merrimack College, Margaret Read with Partnership for a Healthier America, and Marlene Schwartz with the University of Connecticut.

By Brianna Aguayo Villalon
Author - Student Communications Fellow
By Monica Daniela Zuercher
Editor - Assistant Project Scientist
By Wendi Gosliner
Editor - Project scientist
By Lorrene D Ritchie
Editor - Director of the Nutrition Policy Institute and Cooperative Extension Nutrition Specialist