Parents with children in Iowa’s public schools are closely following the debate over school lunch programs and are generally pleased with federal guidelines mandating healthier choices available in school cafeterias, according to a new survey from the University of Iowa.
The Iowa Parent School Lunch Survey from the UI’s Public Policy Center found that 84 percent of parents with children in school are aware of recent changes to the school lunch program, with most of them (75 percent) learning of the changes through their child. Nearly half agree that school lunches are healthy, while nearly a third of respondents (31 percent) say that school lunches today are a lot healthier than when they were in school.
“We were pleasantly surprised that parents are this interested in school lunch,” says Natoshia Askelson, associate research scientist at the PPC and the study’s lead author. “We hope that this energy continues. Schools need to be out there providing parents with more accurate information and involving them in making Iowa’s school meal program the best it can be.”
Despite the general good grades, some parents remain skeptical of the government’s oversight of school nutrition and changes that came with the 2010 law covering breakfast and lunches served at public schools nationwide. More specifically, these parents complained that portions are too small or food quality was substandard. For example, one respondent said the portions were not enough for children who have no time to eat again before engaging in extracurricular activities, especially sports. “Kids are bringing junk food to satisfy their hunger,” one parent reported.
Other parents were concerned about waste stemming from food their children were served but had no intention of eating. One parent said: “[My son] doesn’t like that he is forced to take food he knows he will not eat. It just gets thrown away and is wasted.”
Parents overwhelmingly agree that fresh foods are essential for a healthy meal, but some noted food was being prepared off the premises or being prepackaged and lacked taste, the survey found. Still, many parents believe the changes had a positive impact on their child’s diet, citing new and improved salad bars and an increased availability of fruits and vegetables.
The survey, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was designed to assess Iowa parents’ knowledge and perceptions of the school lunch program and the new school meal patterns as defined by the 2010 law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Elizabeth Golembiewski and Daniel Elchert, from the UI Public Policy Center, are contributing authors on the report.