What's for Lunch? the Impact of School Lunch Menus on Student Participation in the Nslp

Wednesday, June 26, 2019: 10:30 AM
Truman - Mezzanine Level (Marriott Wardman Park Hotel)

Presenter: Saied Toossi

Discussant: Christian Gregory

The passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 launched a concerted effort to enhance the nutritional content of the meals served in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), through which tens of millions of children receive meals across the country on a daily basis. The success of these reforms in improving the diets of students enrolled in participating schools is, however, predicated on their decisions to receive and consume the meals offered to them through the program. Yet 40% of students do not take advantage of the NSLP. While there may be several reasons why students choose to forego school provided meals, a popular and often cited explanation is that the lack of appeal of the meals themselves may be a major motivator.

The aim of this study is to shed light on this mechanism by investigating the link between school lunch menus and lunch participation rates using student level administrative data provided by the New York City (NYC) Department of Education. As the largest and most diverse in the country, the NYC school district is an ideal setting for such an endeavor. Employing a difference-in-differences framework and exploiting the substantial variation in number and types of menus offered across NYC schools, preliminary results suggest that menus may in fact be a significant determinant of lunch participation, and that their effect varies across students from different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds.

Understanding this relationship is of interest for several reasons. First, the results from this study would serve to substantiate existing anecdotal evidence regarding the effect of school lunch menus and provide a basis for the efforts that many school districts are expending to reformulate their menus. Second, identifying the menus and specific meals that induce the greatest participation can help inform the design of future menus better suited to the palates of students, thereby reducing the number who forego school lunch while maintaining high nutritional standards. Third, identifying and eliminating the least popular menus or meals may provide avenues for cost-savings through waste reduction. Lastly, the insights gleaned from this study may serve to inform the design of future menus and identify opportunities to increase participation in school lunch by better targeting menus to specific populations.