June 30, 2010

Baltimore School District Food Survey Reveals Parents agree with the District’s initiative to provide Healthier Options for Their Kids

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

fruits and vegetablesAs the Baltimore City Public Schools system continues the transformation of its food service for more than 80,000 kids (see food revolution), a new survey reveals that students and parents are hungry for more. Melissa Mahoney, the districts “top chef”, nutritionist and dietitian , sent out the survey to measure opinions about the ongoing changes and what they’d like to see in the future. Some of the biggest changes include the introduction of Meatless Monday menu options, fresh local fruits, and the creation of the Great Kids Farm as an education center focused on food and agriculture.

The survey link was presented to parents and students on the March, April and May school menus that are sent home in addition to being permanently placed on the “What you need to know” section of the district website.  Parents and students were encouraged complete a web-based survey reflecting their opinions about current menu items and preferences not only for future specific menu items, but attitudes about how the district should be focusing its initiatives.

Here is a breakdown of the results from 163 parents and 34 students who logged on to take the survey

Parents:

83% (135/163)    would like to see more salads offered
54%  (88/163)     would like to see pork offered less often
61%  (99/163 )     would like to see more vegetarian options offered
81%  (132/163)    would like to see more raw cut vegetables offered for lunch
91%  (148/163)    would like to see more fresh fruit offered at breakfast and lunch
64%  (104/163)    would like to see more reduced-fat breakfast meat offered.
50%  (81/163)      would like to see more reduced-fat and whole-wheat muffins and  pastries offered
65%  (106/163)    would like to see more soups offered
78%  (127/163)    would like to see more yogurt at breakfast
*Survey is not statistically significant

Students:

85% (29/34)    would like to see more fresh fruit at breakfast
60% (20/34)    would like to see more salads offered
72%  (24/34)    would like to see more fresh fruit at lunch
51%  (17/34)     would like to see more standard options (hot dogs, chicken nuggets, hamburgers)
*Survey is not Statistically Significant

Because this was what is called a self-selected study, the results cannot be said to be representative nor scientific.  Participants could choose for themselves whether or not to take the survey.  Often that generates a bias because the people who are willing to take the time to fill out the survey may represent people who care very strongly about the survey topics or have more knowledge about those than the average parent or student in the BCPS.  That being said, I applaud the BCPS for continuing to increase the dialogue between the district, parents and students about menu choices, health implications and attitudes about food.

It is obvious from the results that the parents who were willing to take the survey want more fresh, healthy options for the students of the city schools.  The question remains whether or not this is representative of parents throughout the district.  On the student side, while the sample was small (n=34) the results were slightly more mixed, as could be expected.  They did seem to favor more fresh and healthy options, but they did not always agree that the new changes to the menu had improved the taste and about half of the students asked for more of the standard lunch fare of nuggets and burgers.  Ideally, if the majority of the parent and student population shared their opinion through this survey, then the City Schools’ Food and Nutrition staff would be better able to tailor their efforts towards the community preferences.  This remains a positive step forward.

Regarding attitudes about food purchasing and menu development, the breakdown from the parents and students in the survey were as follows:

Parents:

73% (119/163)     feel fairly or very strongly about wanting the district to support Maryland farms by buying locally for fruits and vegetables.
92%  (150/163)    feel fairly or very strongly about promoting digestive health through more whole grains.
61%  (99/163)    feel fairly or very strongly about featuring more ethnic cuisine that reflects the many cultures of Baltimore.
97% (158/163)     feel fairly strong to very strong that the menus should provide increased supported for immune health with more fresh fruit and vegetables
* Survey is not Statistically Significant

Students:

51% (17/34)    feel fairly or very strongly about wanting the district to support Maryland farms by buying locally for fruits and vegetables.
49% (17/34)    feel fairly or very strongly about promoting digestive health through more whole grains.
62% (21/34)    feel fairly strong to very strong that the menus should provide increased supported for immune health with more fresh fruit and vegetables
*Survey is not statistically significant

Close to half of the parents and a third of the students surveyed feel fairly or very strongly about eliminating sweetened milk from menus.  According to nutritional information from the Connecticut State Department of Ed. and the backs of typical school lunch milk cartons, for each small carton of chocolate or flavored milk, a child adds between 40 and 60 calories to their diet compared to regular milk , which can correspond to 2.5 pounds of weight gain during a school year (180 school days), if they drank the milk everyday and all else was kept constant.

What is the take away from this survey?  The biggest thing to take away is there is now an open dialogue beginning to take shape between the school food service and the parents and students of Baltimore City Schools.  A reader can see from the numbers that when “health” was mentioned, parents’ support drastically increased for those foods.  Parents want what is best for their children and I hope that this new dialogue can help Baltimore City Public Schools and parents move the district forward in its mission to “advance student academic achievement and well-being by offering healthy food choices.”

For other articles about changes to the BCPS school food service:
The Atlantic
The Washington Post
The Huffington Post

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