Measuring Student Choices in School Cafeterias

Food Ambassadors is Making Fresh Food Fun

by J. Hunter Holbrook, Food Ambassadors Intern, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

sweet potatoes.png

“I like these sweet potatoes more than macaroni!”

True statement from a kid at Durham's Lakewood Elementary School this past spring. But it's not exactly something you would expect to hear from the average elementary school student. Seeing as 9 in 10 NC children do not get the recommended amount of vegetables in their diet, such a ringing endorsement seems even more unlikely. However, Farmer Foodshare’s Food Ambassadors (FA) program is opening more kids' eyes to just how amazing fresh, local produce can be. 

As a Master of Public Health student in Health Behavior at UNC-Chapel Hill, my summer practicum requirement led me to a Food Ambassadors internship with Farmer Foodshare. Through this experience, I have worked with Farmer Foodshare staff, Durham Public Schools (DPS), and Durham Innovative Nutrition Education (DINE) to develop procedures for in-school cafeteria taste tests and provide a foundation for tray waste studies.

My work at Farmer Foodshare began by conducting a survey of DPS cafeteria managers, staff, and supervisors. The anonymous survey was intended to gauge opinions of previous in-school cafeteria taste tests, nutrition education curricula, and general opinions of cafeteria staff regarding FA principles. By interpreting these results, I was able to identify some of the barriers and facilitators to increasing the presence of fresh, local food in school cafeterias. Moving forward, I could see how the FA program could be enhanced with these ideas in mind.


I also conducted a background analysis and literature review largely informed by the 2017 Community Health Assessment of Durham County.  From this data, I noted that the threat of food insecurity affects roughly 52,000 Durham County residents, and that rising chronic disease rates are priorities to the community. Building out of this need, I researched factors that lead to these problems, and the extent to which they exist in Durham County. My review led me to examine the ways that cafeteria taste tests and nutrition education programs could tackle these issues, and how tray waste studies could be used to measure the effectiveness of such programs. As a result of this analysis, the FA program now has a standardized, evidence-based platform to continue its growth and implementation in DPS. More kids getting more fresh food from local farmers? Everybody wins!


As I moved from research into planning, I looked at results from Farmer Foodshare’s pilot taste tests. During Spring 2018,  approximately 13,000 students in 19 schools participated, and 79% of students responded to the taste test with an enthusiastic “I loved it,” or at least, “I liked it” when asked about the taste test vegetables. On the other side of the cafeteria serving line, cafeteria managers also responded with positivity when asked about their views of fresh, local food, in-school taste tests, and Farmer Foodshare as an organization.


While I saw that the response from DPS students and staff was overwhelmingly positive, how was I going to know that the FA program was actually leaving a lasting impact on DPS students? Simply having a smiling Farmer Foodshare or DINE face in the cafeteria is enough to brighten anyone’s day, of course, but I want to make sure that the FA program would be going beyond that. The new and exciting resolution to this problem will be including tray waste measurements into the FA program.


Along with the background and precursor analysis, I looked into how current tray waste measurements are currently being conducted around the country. While weighing the trays is the gold standard, this would be a bit impractical to do, given the large number of DPS students. Instead, I suggested a standardized means of collecting tray waste data that relies on a validated and reliable technique known as the Quarter-Waste Method. By using this method, FA staff and volunteers can estimate how much of each food item is wasted, to the nearest 25% interval. Partnered with this technique, I designed a data collection tool that will be used in cafeteria taste tests during the 2018-2019 school year.  


With new data collection strategies and techniques, we can begin to understand how taste-tests and nutrition education affect student choice on the lunch line. Specifically, I am interested in how many students actually select and eat the fresh, local vegetable option. Information on consumption will also help inform purchasing decisions for DPS. From the data Farmer Foodshare will collect, we’ll be able to reliably estimate the total volume and cost of any wasted food.  

thumbs up.png

Over time, these measures will allow Farmer Foodshare to measure the impact of the FA program in two ways: 1) at an individual level, by improving student’s health-related decisions, and 2) at a community level, by connecting North Carolina family farmers to new institutional markets, i.e. school systems.  

For a more in-depth look at Farmer Foodshare’s Food Amabasadors background analysis and tray waste measures, you can check out my assessment.