Impact of Nutritious School Lunch on Student Achievement

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. 

How can schools reduce food waste? Does it matter?

A report by the Natural Resource Defense Council found that roughly 40% of food in America is thrown away, which is worth about $165 billion per year.  Last year John Oliver critiqued the American obsession with food and propensity for waste.  


Earlier this year I argued that measuring food waste is important for schools because it engages key employees from operations in reducing waste, increasing efficiency, and ultimately improving student achievement by ensuring students have access to desirable and nutritious food and money saved by reducing waste is targeted directly at student need.  

This week Mike Lepene, Richmond Middle School Principal, posted on Twitter a link to a project from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation aimed at reducing cafeteria waste.  The project is requesting schools to volunteer to fill out a short survey (one hour to complete) and measure cafeteria waste several times a year.  The aims:

  • Educating students/school staff regarding more sustainable waste management strategies,
  • Reducing unnecessary food waste,
  • Reducing food costs to schools, and
  • Developing ways to better manage institutional food waste.

This is a wonderful project with ambitious aims.  The data collected could easily be used to focus attention on an area of waste in the system.  What's more, it seems like a great way to engage students in a problem-centered conversation.  Students could lead the measurement, the identification of strategies to reduce waste, and the review of evaluation data.  A project like this could be used to introduce students to the design thinking iterative process of problem solving.  

If we are interested in improving our systems then we should be paying to where we are wasteful.