Students helping districts create "Smarter Lunchrooms"

Two Lisbon High School students grade the lunchroom after changes to promote healthier eating. ...
Two Lisbon High School students grade the lunchroom after changes to promote healthier eating. University of Iowa researchers are working with five schools to try the national Smarter Lunchroom program.(KCRG)
Published: Apr. 27, 2016 at 4:31 PM CDT
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Lunchrooms in five Iowa school districts look a little different after students, food service workers and University of Iowa researchers made changes to promote healthy foods.

The partnership involves a national program called “Smarter Lunchrooms.”

The idea is to let students help schools redesign cafeterias to put healthier choices like fruits and vegetables up front. It’s part of a plan to combat adolescent obesity and cut waste.

Lisbon is one of the schools taking part in the experiment and U of I researchers were back on Wednesday to see how it’s working after two months.

Some of the high schoolers who participated took checklists to score how the changes are working.

Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor in the U of I College of Public Health, said every district had done something a little different. But if it adds up to an improvement with students choosing healthier foods and wasting less, then it’s an idea to try elsewhere.

“Next year we’re expanding to do six more schools and then after that we hope to make it a statewide effort,” Askelson said.

One of the ideas involve simple psychology to encourage students to make those better food choices. For instance, when going through the lunch line, students pass both a prominent fresh fruit display and a salad bar with fresh vegetables first. That’s before they get to the main choices which on this day included pizza or tacos.

But before they check out, there’s one last fruit stand to tempt with a final choice.

In addition to giving fruits and vegetables more of a starring role, students also came up with posters, banners and other signs to promote the healthier food options.

One idea behind Smarter Lunchrooms is if students suggest the changes other students are more likely to listen and change their habits.

Gina Montgomery, a sophomore at Lisbon who took part in designing the lunchroom changes, said she’s seen the impact in the last two months.

“At my lunch tables, I see a lot of my friends eating more salads—salads as their main course now,” Montgomery said.

Researchers still need to look at some of the information collected by Lisbon to document the extent of changing eating habits. But Carol Moore, a lunchroom worker, said she’s seen a fairly significant shift in the healthier foods students put on their trays.

“I’d say 30-40 percent better. Overall, we offer a lot more and there’s been quite a change,” Moore said.

Michele Lamporte McCoy, Lisbon food service director, said the district got a $500 grant to buy baskets and other items to brighten up the display or fresh fruits and vegetables. But that’s all it took to make the changes and push fruits and vegetables to the head of the lunch line.

U of I researchers say they’re also working with students and food service workers at Harland, Highland, Muscatine and Sumner-Fredricksburg to try the Smarter Lunchroom changes.