Student Perspective: Changes to Middle School Food Support Healthy Choices in High School Cafeteria

August 25, 2011

Today we have a blog by HSC intern Christine Andersen. Christine recently completed her sophomore year of high school. Thanks to Christine for sharing her story!

After another school year, I was thrilled to intern again this summer at Healthy Schools Campaign. Last year, I wrote about the changes my father helped make to my middle school’s lunch program and their immediate effects.

My high school’s lunch program is very different, primarily because my school has its own kitchen. Therefore, all of the food is prepared at the school, not just dropped off, heated up, and served to students as it is at many schools (including my old school). Not only does this allow for better tasting food to be prepared, but it gives the students more choices. This can be either a good thing or bad thing.

The benefit of the middle school program was that while students’ choices may have been limited, we only had healthy options to choose from. In high school, students still have the choice of hamburgers and pizza, but there is also a salad bar and a sandwich bar. Along with these daily options, students may still choose from the varying hot lunch selections.

So which is better? Ultimately, a turkey sandwich or a salad from my high school is probably still a better daily choice than the real meat hamburgers on wheat buns from my middle school. But now that students are given the choice, which will they choose? The answer is, the healthier option.

Based on my observations, the sandwich and salad bar lines are always much longer than the lines for the hamburgers and the pizza. Furthermore, those who choose from the hot lunch selections usually end up choosing from the wide selection of healthy sides which include fruit, vegetables, and yogurt, over fries.

These are the exact same students who five years ago were upset when they heard that their junk food was being taken away and replaced by healthy food. Now, however, those same students are choosing the most healthy options!

In thinking about the factors that could have led to this change, obviously the fact that the students are older and more mature is significant. However, being exposed to healthy food when they were younger, although maybe not by choice, must have made a real impact. Not all students develop healthy eating habits at home. (I have always been surprised when I go to a friend’s house and see a pantry stuffed with chips and cookies.) But when it comes to lunch, most students I see still make healthy choices at school. This leads me to think that our healthy changes to school lunch in middle school and the nutrition education we receive must play a big role. 

While last year I talked about the short term effects, I'm now seeing the longer-term effects of school lunch reform. From my perspective, it seems that a change to our food in middle school played a real role in helping many junk-food-loving pre-teens grow into health-conscious young adults.

Plus: To read more about students making a difference for healthy school food, check out our upcoming Cooking up Change contest! You can read blog updates and profiles of previous participants here.