Are Nutrition Report Cards (NRC) a useful and feasible tool for promoting healthy food choices in school lunchrooms? An NRC features a list of foods offered in the lunchroom that indicates how many times a week children selected each item. The report is customized for each child to give parents a summary of their child’s food choices over a week period. New research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab finds that there are potential benefits to providing parents with reports of students’ food selections.
Researchers looked at the effects of NRCs on student food selection and at how much time generating the reports took for food service personnel. The reports were intended to give parents a summary of the foods that students select for lunch without providing any evaluation. Researchers proposed that the reports could influence children to select healthier foods because they knew their parents would observe their choices. Another potentially positive outcome of the NRCs that researchers proposed is that they could provide a gateway for conversations about good nutrition between parents and children.
The Cornell pilot study was conducted in a rural k-12 school district in upstate New York with 35 participating parents who agreed to receive a weekly NRC via email. A computerized point of sale system was programed to record reimbursable meal components: fruit/vegetable items, starchy sides, and milk. Each time a student selected one of these items the casher indicated the purchase by clicking a pre-programmed button that corresponded with each component. Cashers were trained to identify which food items constituted which component. The computer system also recorded which a-la-carte items where purchased, such as, chips or cookies.
At the end of each week, food service staff generated a NRC from the computerized sale records for each child. For each day of the week the NRC listed which of the three components the child selected, if the meal purchased qualified as a National School Lunch Program meal and what a-la-carte items were purchased.
The intervention increased the time of each payment transaction by only .16 seconds. Thirty minutes a week was required of staff to generate and send the reports to parents. These findings indicate that the initiative is not significantly time consuming and can quickly be implemented.
Purchase records from the weeks before the NRCs were sent to parents were compared to purchase records after the intervention. The study found that students purchased cookies and flavored milk less often and purchased vegetables and fruits more often. Parents also reported that they appreciated knowing what their children were eating at school and that it allowed them to initiate conversations about healthy eating. Overall, the study showed that Nutrition Report Cards have the potential to encourage healthy eating behaviors and conversations with minimal effort from food service professionals.
Just, David R., Richard W. Patterson, Laura E. Smith, Brian Wansink. “Nutrition Report Cards: An Opportunity to Improve School Lunch Selection.” PLOS One: October 2013.