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School Lunches Work When They’re More Than Just Nutrition

School meal programmes can feed kids successfully without creating excess food waste when they offer a wide range of foods that students are familiar with and enjoy eating, new research finds.

In a study funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, researchers looked at community and school-led meal delivery programmes and their roles in the agrifood sector to understand what makes a programme successful or not.

The researchers found that school meal programmes don’t work when they are designed and assessed based on nutritional content alone. Alongside more nutritious ingredients, programmes that instead include foods that students normally prefer to eat – as part of culturally relevant dishes that look, feel, and taste good – are less likely to have meals left uneaten and thrown out.

The outcomes of the study suggest that meal programmes play a vital role in bridging gaps in nutrition and helping to alleviate food poverty, making it critical that they continue while being tailored better to who they are feeding.

“The most surprising finding, at a very simple level, was that many of the less successful food in school initiatives are not providing the kind of food that the students want to eat,” says Prof. Nitha Palakshappa, Our Land and Water research co-leader and Professor of Marketing and Sustainability at Massey University Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa. “People are less likely to eat food that is not tasty and doesn’t look like something that they are commonly eating at home.”

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She explains: “For some students, if you give them macaroni cheese or spaghetti bolognese, then the chances are that they will recognise and eat it, because it is part of what they are already used to eating. But if I were to give those same students a vegetable curry without at least explaining what it is first, then they’re less likely to eat it. And vice versa for students who prefer eating curries.”

Nitha and her colleagues found that successful programmes catered to a school’s unique set of food preferences and cultures, by having students indicate what they wanted to eat from a diverse and multicultural weekly menu and then offering a range of these foods at mealtimes.

“If you make sure that the nutritious food is something that people actually want to eat, then immediately you create a spiral upwards in terms of their health and wellbeing,” says Nitha. “That has important ramifications later – for anything from labour and productivity through to how people access health care.”

The researchers found that the most successful programmes go above and beyond providing lunches. These programmes work closely with schools to enhance students’ positive experiences of food and reduce feelings of shame about needing to take part in the programme.

School staff themselves can play a crucial role in a programme’s success by running food-related classes or activities that slowly introduce students to an unfamiliar food before it is added to meals. For example, the study revealed that teachers successfully piqued students’ interest in trying soybeans by teaching them about the food’s history.

Having an in-built kitchen at the school also makes a difference. This allows programmes to get fresher meals to the table faster – making them more appealing than delivered food. It also minimises food waste, since programmes can then cater for exact numbers of students attending each day. Many effective programmes also make the kitchen or food hub a shame-free safe space for students to get food or advice at any time.

One of the meal programmes that took part in the study is Kura Kai. It supplies schools with freezers to store meals that anyone can take home to feed their whānau or others in their community.

“They created no shame around accessing that food,” explains Nitha. “The food was available in the freezer for people to take it as they needed. There's no barrier – they can just pick up the food, put it in their bag, and walk out with it.”

Some schools run the Kura Kai Rangatahi programme, in which students cook the meals themselves during classes, also gaining NCEA credits. These ‘cook ups’ help to create a stronger connection to the food on their plates.

Involving the students in budgeting, planning, and cooking some of the school meals gives them the knowledge and skills that they need to be able to feed their whānau and community.

“At the same time, they were working with horticulture experts in the community to ensure that there were gardens planted so that vegetables were immediately accessible for these cook ups,” says Nitha. “That meant students got to see how important it was to be in a place or a space where they had access to all these things that allowed them to eat well.”

Food programmes that keep rangatahi connected to cultural knowledge systems about culturally meaningful foods – from growing and harvesting through to cooking and preserving – help to strengthen cultural identity and wellbeing, as well as food security for the wider community.

When programmes work with local food growers or community gardens this helps to provide fresh, relevant ingredients for tailored meals more sustainably, to ensure better wellbeing for students and whānau.

More information:

Read more about the research project on the Our Land and Water website.

The full report and the shorter summary report are both available via Google Drive: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1VCQolYfFnlLO3avIMXzB6RrIlX7uOAKx?usp=sharing

Our Land and Water (Toitū te Whenua, Toiora te Wai) is one of 11 National Science Challenges that focus on defined issues of national importance identified by the New Zealand public. Its mission is to preserve the most fundamental treasures of our country – our land, water and associated ecosystems – while producing value from those same treasures.

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