School lunches: The chance to socialize is bringing more teens to the table

70% of students says eating school meals gives them a chance to "build friendships and community with other students."

Socializing with friends is a key reason that eating meals provided by high school lunch services is soaring in popularity with students.

Child nutrition and hunger advocates have noted a participation gap between the number of younger students and teens who partake in school meals, as just more than half of the nation’s public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

But that divide appears to be narrowing, according to the latest youth engagement report from No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit working to end child hunger. Prior to COVID, 61% of teens said they would likely eat school lunch. That number soared to 86%—or more than four in five teens—in a survey that No Kid Hungry conducted in May 2022.

A similar number of teens reported that high school meals they ate were free or reduced-price “despite the stigma that these programs are only for low-income families,” the report says.

Social interaction is a key driver of teens’ rising enthusiasm for and positive perception of school meals. More than 70% said that eating school meals gives them a chance to “build friendships and community with other students.” Convenience and affordability are two more big reasons that teens are gravitating toward school meal programs.

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The survey’s results might also convince administrators to expand meal service. More than 80% of teens would be more likely to eat school meals that were available throughout the day “to help them decrease hunger,” the report said.

And in what might be a slight surprise, nearly two-thirds of students said “school meals taste good” while just more than half described the food as high-quality. On the other hand, about a fifth of teens said poor taste and quality were two reasons that they would probably not eat school meals. These detractors said school food was too processed and low in nutritional value. Other students lamented a lack of vegetarian options.

Here’s a look at how teens’ impressions of various components of school meal service improved from 2021 to 2022:

  • Easy to get: 84%→94%
  • Eating with other students: 79%→93%
  • Convenience: 74%→88%
  • Saving families money: 66%→83%
  • “Are for people like me”: 57%→75%
  • Are healthy: 57%→69%
  • Taste good: 59%→64%
  • Are only for low-income families: 52%→44%

As the return to in-person learning has boosted students’ desire to eat school meals, having trusted adults gather students’ feedback on the food that are served could further increase participation.

“Middle and high school students are eager to be involved in shaping and improving the school meals experience, but many feel that their school doesn’t value their opinions and they don’t feel heard,” the report concludes. “Schools can change this narrative and empower teens by keeping them informed about school and community meals participation opportunities, engaging them in conversations about the food they eat, and asking them to share feedback and ideas about their experiences.”

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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