In a recent article in The Atlantic there is a summary of a new study that purportedly shows a link between healthy lunches and student achievement. The study, conducted by economists from the University of California at Berkeley and Case Western, found that students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on California state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches. There is no evidence that the healthier school lunches contribute to a decrease in obesity.
It is argued that offering healthier school lunches is a cost-effective way to increase student achievement. In fact, in terms of return on investment healthier school lunches is a much better way to increase student achievement. This study is an important reminder that our schools and districts are systems and that all parts of the system are important. Food service, maintenance, and other elements of operations must be included in school improvement efforts and see themselves are notable members of the team that contribute to student outcomes.
I have previously argued that measuring tray waste is essential in a school system focused on systemic improvement (for efficiency and nutritional reasons). The report covered in The Atlantic connects the nutritional quality of the lunches to student outcomes. Now schools and districts should use this report to justify experiments in their district using the measures I previously described (). Schools and districts should be asking these questions: when we increase the nutritional quality of the lunches we serve does tray waste increase or decrease? Does participation increase or decrease? Does student satisfaction increase or decrease? It isn’t just a matter of contracting with a healthier school lunch provider. We still need to focus on the system and see what impact the change has on other important factors, such as student participation.