How to Improve School Lunch Program Participation

How to Improve School Lunch Program ParticipationCould offering healthier meals actually increase participation in your school’s lunch program? A recent study by the Kid’s Safe & Healthful Foods Project and the Health Impact Project suggests that implementing stricter nutritional guidelines for food served in schools could result in more foodservice revenue for educational institutions. Why? Many schools are losing money because students are electing to purchase food for lunch from vending machines or a la carte lines.

Although most would agree that offering healthy food in schools is a good idea, many schools have yet to do so for a number of different reasons, including cost, staffing restrictions, or fear of rejection from students. Here are a few inexpensive and easy ideas to help you increase your school’s lunch program participation by offering healthier options for students.

Energy-Free Lunches

One of the biggest obstacles to offering children healthier school lunches is funding. Healthier foods are generally less cost effective than processed menu items, making them less appealing to school foodservice program directors. Warren County Public Schools in Kentucky has taken an innovative approach to cutting costs associated with healthy school meals, having an energy-free meal at least once a month. Every elementary school in the district turns off its cafeteria lights and most of its kitchen equipment on these days, serving children a nutritious brown-bag lunch consisting of a sandwich, apples, crackers, and vegetables. The energy savings from these days can be reinvested into purchasing ingredients for healthy meals.

School Gardens

A school garden is a cost-effective way of procuring fresh produce to serve to your students. More importantly, it serves as a great learning tool, educating them about how food is grown. Select a few classes or student groups to plant and maintain the garden as it grows; students who work in the garden are more likely to try the food grown in it. Setting up free tastings in the school cafeteria is also a great way to generate excitement over fresh fruits and vegetables from your school garden.


Getting students to select healthy options can be a huge challenge. However, making a simple change such as restructuring your lunch line may be enough to make healthy food enticing to students. Grocery stores often place sugary cereals on the bottom shelves, prominently displaying them at eye level for their intended audience, children. “Merchandising” healthy items in places where students are most likely to look is an effective method for helping them make better nutritional choices. Try moving your school’s salad bar in front of the checkout area or placing white milk in front of chocolate milk in milk coolers to keep these items top of mind for students.

In addition to better participation in lunch programs, adding healthier food to your school’s menu has other benefits. Studies have shown that children who eat a well-balanced diet are better behaved and more focused, improving the learning experience for all.