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Student voice in school food choice: Strategies to engage students in menu design

As millions of students in our member districts and those across the country returned to school this month, they were greeted by familiar faces in the cafeteria and exciting additions to the menu. Though the options may seem new to many students, school nutrition programs have been working in the background for months or more to find the best new products and customize the menu for the upcoming school year. This includes the important work of engaging students in the process to learn more about what they love. Student feedback is critical to creating healthy and delicious school meals. It helps ensure that new recipes resonate with the trends and preferences of youth and encourages students to experience new foods.

However, the process isn’t only beneficial to school nutrition programs. It also provides students with hands-on learning opportunities. For example, by participating in the decision-making process, students learn more about the high nutrition standards that school meals are required to meet, including the necessary meal components. This may help students understand how school meals differ from those they encounter at fast food restaurants or the grocery store and can help reinforce MyPlate guidelines and the importance of eating a balanced diet. Additionally, partnering with students on menu design fosters a sense of agency, promotes the importance of civic participation, and demonstrates their ability to create change in their schools and communities by using their voice.

Urban School Food Alliance members operate a variety of creative programs and activities to ensure that student voice is represented in the menu design process. Below are a few examples of the great partnerships in our member districts between students and school nutrition professionals.

Students in Los Angeles Unified School District sample new menu items and provide feedback.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) connects with families throughout the year to sample new products and gather feedback for menu and procurement decisions. Items must receive a 75% approval rating or higher in order to make it on the menu. To ensure these events capture a large and diverse sample of responses, LAUSD Food Services hosts taste tests at different school sites each school year for students and their parents. During the 2022-2023 school year, LAUSD will conduct taste testing at three sites in October, and again in March, each with 300-500 participants. Additionally, LAUSD schools utilize events like back-to-school nights, Meet the Teacher, open house, and other school functions as opportunities to offer samples to students and parents and highlight menu options.

The School District of Palm Beach County (PBCSD) hosts an annual event for students to sample menu items. In August 2022, PBSCD School Food Service hosted middle school students to sample new items that would be featured for Hispanic Heritage month, as well as some plant-based options.

Additionally, PBCSD School Food Service has a student menu advisory group that provides ongoing feedback on recipes and menus virtually. Members of the advisory group leave comments on the district’s mobile menu application, which are reviewed by the nutrition team to identify student favorites and make menu adjustments. This ensures that student engagement continues beyond initial menu placement and reduces barriers to participating in in-person events or opportunities.

Dallas Independent School District (ISD) hosts an annual food festival to test school breakfast and lunch options with students of all grade levels. Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services invites students from elementary, middle, and high schools to the event and uses tablets to collect and aggregate feedback.

Dallas ISD student provides rating for sample at the annual food festival.

And in Dallas ISD, the evaluation efforts extend beyond new foods and flavors. Recently, Food & Nutrition Services piloted ultra-high pasteurized, shelf-stable milk in eight elementary schools, and is relying on feedback from students and staff, in addition to participation and procurement data, to inform decisions about future use.

Learn More: Additional stories of student engagement in Urban School Food Alliance districts

Engaging youth in the menu design process is a win-win for students and school nutrition programs. To learn more about how our members are innovating school food and creating healthy, student-approved menus, visit The USFA Resource Center to access best practices, case studies, and more!

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