Survey shows New Orleans students enjoy new, healthy foods

With childhood obesity on the rise, school food is under constant scrutiny. Through the leadership of the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESY NOLA), school cafeterias across the city are being transformed to promote healthy eating and balanced diets. This change begs the question: what do the students think of their new school food?

For the 2010-2011 school year, the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Tulane University partnered with Tulane dietetic interns and ESY NOLA to assess students' perceptions of new, healthier foods that are being served in their cafeterias. The results of nearly 500 surveys showed that, on average, 75 percent of all students liked the taste of the new, healthy dishes being offered.

"The data was in no way surprising," said ESYNOLA Chef Teacher April Neujean. "Rather it confirmed what we believed all along, that if you allow students to grow it and cook it, they will eat it!"

Overall, the youngest children, grades Kindergarten, First and Second, are most accepting of the new healthier foods, 3rd through 5th grades are in the middle, and 7th and 8th grades are the hardest to please. However, older students are the most likely to eat any given meal again. Peer influence affected answers given by 4-7th grade the most, and kindergarten-2nd grade the least.

The three schools that incorporated school gardening and cooking classes into their curriculum, in addition to the healthy foods, have 10-to-16 percent higher scores for students reporting that they like the looks, smell and taste of their healthy foods when compared to the school that has not incorporated such classes. This preliminary data is supportive of the idea that teaching students about food and healthy eating can help increase their acceptance of healthier foods.

"It is our hope that by providing these classes at such a young age, that this will give students a strong foundation for improved health throughout their lifetime," said Neujean.

The most popular dishes according to taste were Cajun chicken with brown rice pilaf, macaroni and cheese, chicken stew and brown rice and a turkey burger. The turkey burger also did exceptionally well in the observational data: it was in the top performers for minimal plate waste (almost all the food was eaten), students enjoyed eating the dish, and peer influence did not affect students' perceptions of the meal.

Contrary to popular belief, results indicate that brown rice and the replacement of turkey for ground beef were widely accepted by the students. Two local dishes ended up in the bottom four, all receiving scores of below 52 percent in terms of acceptance. Only 45 percent of students would ever want Jambalaya again, and less than 60 percent of students liked the taste of Cajun baked fish. Researchers hypothesize that the reason for these results might be the fact that many students prefer the way their family makes these dishes.

Tulane Dietetic interns designed the survey instrument, which included both a quantitative and an observational (qualitative) section. Four New Orleans schools participated in the surveys, which were conducted by the dietetic interns. These schools were: Samuel Green, Langston Hughes, Arthur Ashe and John Dibert. The three schools with cooking and/or gardening classes are Ashe, Langston Hughes and Green. Dibert has a garden but no gardening or cooking classes.

"We hope this data will encourage other schools to make similar changes to school food partnered with school gardens and hands-on food education programs," said Neujean.

Story by Laura Dean, MPH,
Dietetic Intern Class of 2011

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