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March 24, 2015
Chef-Enhanced School Meals Increase Healthy Food Consumption

A new study co-funded by Project Bread shows that schools collaborating with a professionally trained chef to improve the nutrition and taste of school lunches significantly increased students’ fruit and vegetable consumption.

Boston, MA March 23, 2015 ─ A new study co-funded by Project Bread shows that schools collaborating with a professionally trained chef to improve the nutrition and taste of school lunches significantly increased students’ fruit and vegetable consumption. Boston-based Project Bread is the only statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts.

“This research supports what most of us know intuitively. Children will eat food that is healthy, presented well, and tastes good,” said Project Bread Executive Director Ellen Parker. “A child may need to taste a new food two or three times before they choose it, but good food combined with patience will bring them around. In the end, school children eating nutritious food is our goal.”

The study, led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also found that using “choice architecture” (environmental “nudges” to promote healthy choices) in school cafeterias improved students’ selection of fruits and vegetables, but did not increase consumption over the long-term. The study is the first to examine the long-term impact of choice architecture and chef-enhanced meals in school cafeterias on selection and consumption of healthier foods.

Project Bread is committed to ending hunger in Massachusetts in part by ensuring that every school-age child has access to affordable, healthy, and delicious school meals. Among the many programs in the region that leverage the expertise chefs are Brookline, Cambridge, Beverly, Lawrence and Salem Schools.

The study was published online in JAMA Pediatrics, on March 23, 2015. This study was co-funded by a grant from Project Bread and the Arbella Insurance Foundation. Copies of the study can be provided upon request. 

John Donohue, chairman, president and CEO of the Arbella Insurance Group and chairman and president of Arbella’s Foundation, said, “The Foundation is proud to support projects that strengthen individuals and communities. Providing healthy menu options is important because balanced nutrition leads to positive growth and development in children and helps them to thrive in school.”  

Some 32 million students in the United States eat school meals every day; for many low-income students, more than half of their daily calories come from school meals. More than 15,000 U.S. schools have implemented choice architecture methods, which encompass techniques such as placing healthy options at the beginning of the buffet line or placing white milk in front of flavored milk.

The researchers conducted a school-based randomized clinical trial during the 2011-2012 school year among 14 elementary and middle schools in two urban, low-income school districts in Massachusetts. Included in the study were 2,638 students in grades three through eight. The schools were randomly assigned to receive weekly training and recipe design from a professionally trained chef; some received choice architecture techniques (referred to as “smart café”); some received both; and the rest (the control schools) received no intervention.

After four months, smart café students increased their vegetable selection over control students by about 17 percent and fruit selection by 3 percent, but consumption didn’t improve. There was no significant change in selection or consumption of white milk over chocolate milk. The schools with combined smart café and chef intervention fared only modestly better than the schools that just provided the services of a  chef. 

In contrast, after seven months, students in the chef intervention schools were 20 percent more likely than control school students to choose a fruit and 30 percent more likely to choose a vegetable. Their consumption of these foods—meaning how much of the selected items were actually eaten—increased by similar percentages.

“The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals. Partnerships with chefs can lead to substantial improvements in the quality of school meals and can be an economically feasible option for schools,” said lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan. “Additionally, this study shows that schools should not abandon healthier foods if they are initially met with resistance by students.”

“Kids are savvy consumers, they bring some of the most discerning and particular palates to the table,” said Project Bread Chef Kirk Conrad. “The visual impression is always important because we cannot sneak anything by these young eaters.” 

More information on Project Bread’s programs, including chef-inspired school food recipes from the Let’s Cook Healthy School Meals cookbook can be found on the Project Bread website at www.projectbread.org. 

“Effects of Choice Architecture and Chef-Enhanced Meals on the Selection and Consumption of Healthier School Foods: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” Juliana F.W. Cohen, Scott A. Richardson, Sarah A. Cluggish, Ellen Parker, Paul J. Catalano, Eric B. Rimm, JAMA Pediatrics, online March 23, 2015, doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.3805.

About Project Bread

Project Bread is the only statewide anti-hunger organization committed to providing people of all ages, cultures, and walks of life with sustainable, reliable access to nutritious food in Massachusetts. From community-based meal programs, to early childhood and school nutrition initiatives, to improved access to farm-to-table resources, Project Bread approaches hunger as a complex problem with multiple solutions. With funds raised through The Walk for Hunger, the oldest continual pledge Walk in the country, and other sources, Project Bread pioneers innovative initiatives and supports effective programs to eradicate hunger in Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.projectbread.org, www.Facebook.com/ProjectBread, or www.Twitter.com/WalkForHunger.

Filed under: Healthy Food, News and Events, Community Solutions, Children and Schools, General, For the Media, Reports and Studies