Chef-made meals can increase participation school lunch program, raise vegetable consumption

Gourmet pizza in school? According to a new Food and Brand Lab pilot study, published in Appetite, chef-made meals can increase participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) by 9 percent and overall selection and consumption of vegetables by 16 percent.

Chefs Move to Schools (CMTS), an initiative of [first lady] Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, pairs chefs with schools in order to provide nutrition instruction to students and culinary advice to interested school food service workers.

At a recent CMTS event at an Upstate New York high school (of 370 students), researchers David Just and Brian Wansink (co-directors of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab) and Andrew Hanks [also of the Cornell lab], collected and analyzed school lunch sales and tray waste data before and after the event to determine its impact on student’s food selection and consumption.

The professional chef arrived three days ahead of the date of the event to meet the lunchroom staff and observe student preferences. She also held a tasting event after school for students to meet her and taste the foods she was going to prepare for lunch the following day. To comply with the NSLP requirements for a reimbursable meal each student must select one entree, a [carton of milk], and three sides. The chef created five new NSLP compliant entree recipes: meat taco pizza, bean taco pizza, garlic spinach pizza, meat lover’s pizza, and a mozzarella burger. She also prepared a new pre-packaged side salad. Each of these new items was offered as an optional alternative to the regular school lunch choices: pizza or burger, canned fruit and green beans, broccoli and milk.

Sales data indicated that after the introduction of the new chef-made items, 9 percent more students bought NSLP compliant meals. Tray waste data showed that the high school students ate about the same amount of their entree as they did before the new offerings were added; however, they actually ate 16 percent more of the selected vegetable sides- specifically the new salad. The researchers speculate that this increase was due to the appealing pairing of pizza and salad.

Co-author, Dr. Hanks notes that, “These findings suggest that CMTS has [the] potential to offer a win-win opportunity for school lunch programs and for students. CMTS can increase NSLP meal compliance and also potentially improve students’ nutrition by increasing consumption of vegetables or other healthy sides that complement the main dish.”

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