Temple study looks at why Philly students refuse free school lunches

Philadelphia public school students are all provided free lunch and breakfast daily, but many don’t take advantage. A new Temple University study will examine why — and recommend ways to increase participation.

The in-depth study is being funded by the National Institutes of Health. It will be conducted over five years in collaboration with the School District of Philadelphia.

“The biggest goal is to find ways to collaboratively make school meals work,” Gabriella M. McLoughlin, the study’s principal investigator and assistant professor at Temple’s College of Public Health, told Billy Penn. “And that’s going to depend on the nuances and the context of each school. This is the opposite to the one-size-fits-all approach.”

All Philly students have been entitled to the free meals since 2014, under the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision program.

Despite that initiative — and the fact 20% of student households in the city reported experiencing food insecurity; double the national average — many of the city’s schoolchildren still aren’t partaking. Last year, less than a third of the district’s student population took advantage of free breakfast.

McLoughlin pointed to “implementation gaps,” or challenges in a school’s ability to ensure maximum participation from students in its free meals, which her study will aim to identify.  She and a team of four research assistants will examine existing policy and operations.

“We don’t understand the factors that play a role in whether students decide to take breakfast or lunch that day,” McLoughlin said.

Some factors are known. Timing is one of them, with some students unable to arrive at school early enough to grab breakfast, said Marissa Orbanek, a spokesperson for the Philly School District. Not all schools have “capacity to offer breakfast in the classroom,” she said, or face other “limitations to scheduling breakfast after the bell.” And in some school communities, there still may be a stigma associated with accepting free meals.

While food quality is an easy target of criticism, and has been raised by both students and parents as reasons why they might not take advantage of cafeteria meals, it’s not one of the immediate concerns, according to McLoughlin.

“The quality of the food falls outside of the scope of our study,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think it’ll be found to be a main driving factor of student participation.

The study is built around close engagement and collaboration with school administrators, students, and caregivers to determine aspects of implementation that have been working for specific sites, as well as those that haven’t been.

Listening to students

The study’s five-year timeline is split into different stages and funded for collaboration with eight different schools throughout. Its focus will be on middle and high school students, the age group where McLoughlin said declines in meal participation are more common

The recruitment process is still ongoing, with schools promised anonymity. There are no stipulating factors for participation, geographical or otherwise, McLoughlin said, just “schools that genuinely just want to be a part of this research.”

The first year will revolve around a needs assessment, seeing researchers “listen and learn” — an essential process, McLoughlin explained, not only for establishing connections and building collaborations with administration and students, but earning their trust. “We want to make sure that they feel comfortable,” she said, adding that a school can opt out of the study at any time with no penalty.

Online surveys will be used during that first year to collect initial feedback on meals from students, a step towards addressing what McLoughlin believes has been an oversight in past studies.

“I think the research community doesn’t listen to students enough,” she said. “So getting student input is a really big goal of this project.”

Along with conducting on-site visits at least twice a year, the research team also plans to invite students, caregivers, faculty, and staff to focus groups and collective conversations.

The discussions are a key part of implementation mapping, the systematic method of data collection applied by the study. It’s a new approach to evaluating challenges to the district’s free meal distribution, one that allows McLoughlin and her team “to have that shared decision making with the schools that we’re working with.”

The second and third years will center on a series of collaborative planning meetings with the schools to evaluate the collected information, the goal at the end of which would be an enhanced, test-ready approach to implementation. That would then lead into the study’s final two years, the actual implementation phase, where outcomes of the testing are studied and, depending on their success, either refined or expanded through additional funding.

Impacting an ability to learn and focus

For the district, the hope is that the study will aid by “supporting schools and building capacity for implementation” of universal free meals to students, spokesperson Orbanek said.

It’s an effort that aligns neatly with the district’s own five-year strategic plan, Accelerate Philly, which includes enacting a Breakfast After the Bell program at schools throughout the city.

“We know that improving students’ nutrition and health directly impacts student success, as hunger negatively impacts a student’s ability to learn and focus,” Orbanek said, adding that the district is “looking forward to this partnership with Temple University.”

Besides the district’s office of food supplies, McLoughlin, whose NIH funding includes a grant for training as well as research, has also been working with SNAP-ED to better understand their role within the district’s free meal distribution.

Her ongoing work with the Urban School Food Alliance, a national organization that addresses the needs of large school districts, could potentially see successful implementations stemming from the Philadelphia study expanded on a larger scale.

“We can’t address chronic diseases that we see down the line in adulthood such as Type II diabetes or hypertension,” McLoughlin said, “until we address students’ fundamental needs now, and that is the right to food.”

From Billy Penn