School Food and Nutrition Programs: 10 Things Students Need You to Know

WRITTEN BY: Aramark K-12 Education

What do today’s K-12 students really want when it comes to food and nutrition programs? While there are certainly commonalities from year-to-year, the answer to this question is ever-changing. As new students enter the school system and older students graduate, habits fluctuate and tastes evolve. To keep up with rapidly changing dining needs, attitudes and behaviors, Aramark uses its proprietary Student ViewPOINT platform to conduct an annual survey.

In 2016, we received responses from more than 125,000 middle and high school students. These insights help us, on an annual basis, enhance our programs, tailor our menus and serving styles and implement events and promotions to increase participation and make lasting improvements in the districts we serve.

To help you plan for your future and ensure you meet student expectations, we’re sharing some of our findings.

Here are 10 things you need to know about today’s students when it comes to school food and nutrition programs.

1. 3 Key Factors Impact the School Food Experience
What influences a student’s perception of school dining? As it turns out, there are three key factors — and they’re likely the same things that might affect your satisfaction with a restaurant:

  • The taste of the food
  • The speed of the service
  • The cleanliness of the cafeteria

2. Quality is Paramount
Today’s students value quality food. In fact, food quality is ranked as the No. 1 driver of student satisfaction and has the greatest impact on school meal participation. Closely tied to #1 above, “food quality” is influenced by the following attributes:

  • Taste
  • Appearance / Merchandising
  • Freshness

3. Many Students are Skipping Breakfast or Eating Well Before Actually Arriving at School
The majority of students (43 percent) eat breakfast at home, often well before arriving at school. Another quarter of students skip their morning meal altogether — a dangerous trend.

Studies show students who eat breakfast at school have better academic performance, are more attentive, have fewer disciplinary problems and a healthier start to their day compared to those that skip breakfast or eat breakfast at home.

4. Students Would Eat Breakfast if Schools Offered Their Favorite Foods
Twenty-two percent of students surveyed said they would eat breakfast at school if they had access to their favorite foods:

  • Breakfast meats
  • Waffles
  • Breakfast sandwiches
  • French toast or pancakes
  • Bagels

5. Students Want Breakfast at School to be Convenient
While offering breakfast at school is important (18 percent of students would eat breakfast in the cafeteria), the majority of students prefer to get breakfast in a way that is more convenient to their schedule and proximity to where they arrive/where they need to go for the first period of the day. 51 percent indicated they would be most comfortable eating breakfast in the classroom and another 46 percent said they would prefer buying lunch from a grab-and-go cart.

6. Students Often to Bring Food From Home …
The average student brings a packed lunch 1.5 days per week.

7. … But They’d Buy Nearly Every Day of the Week If More Satisfying Options Were Available
As with breakfast, students shared that they’d happily purchase lunch more often if the school provided (and promoted) more of their preferred options. Students currently buy food at school an average of 2.7 days a week, but would be willing to purchase lunch as often as four out of five days a week.

8. Students Prefer to Eat in a Food Court-Style Environment
If your school offered different, dedicated food stations with a variety of options, chances are your students will be more satisfied. 68 percent of students prefer food court style service while others prefer grab-and-go convenience (38 percent) or made-to-order alternatives (34 percent).

9. Students Are Interested in Making Healthier Choices
Given the easy access to health and wellness information online, promotion of local and fresh produce in stores, and a general increase in nutrition awareness, it’s no wonder many of today’s students are interested in the availability of healthy choices when eating at school. This comes in the form of freshly prepared foods, fresh fruits and veggies and locally sourced produce.

10. Today’s Students Like to Explore New Foods
Students today have a more well-developed palate, and many are eager to try new, ethnic foods. Here are the top three food options students are most likely to try:

  • Italian (58 percent)
  • Mexican (57 percent)
  • Asian (43 percent)

Want to begin exceeding student expectations and increasing participation with your school food and nutrition program? Learn more in our free resource, How Outsourced Partnerships in Food and Facilities Strengthen the K-12 Learning Environment.

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