The Latest Research in Improving School Meals

IMG_2850 copy

Juliana Cohen, Research Associate in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health

Juliana Cohen, Research Associate in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, is passionate about school nutrition. With 30.7 million children relying on school meals every day, and 70% of these children dependent on these meals for half of their energy intake, Cohen is interested in helping to improve the diet for such a vulnerable population.

Cohen has been involved with a variety of school-based nutrition interventions. In one study, Cohen and colleagues found that the healthier USDA school meal standards improved students’ diets in contrast to popular belief. Another study just published in March looked at the short- and long-term Effects of Choice Architecture and Chef-Enhanced Meals on the Selection and Consumption of Healthier School Foods. Choice architecture involves methods to adjust the food environment to encourage consumers to make healthier food choices. This study, in partnership with Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools program, was performed in 14 elementary and middle schools in 2 low-income school districts in the 2011-2012 school year.

Cohen noted some highlights from the study:

  • Choice architecture is a great way for schools to start promoting healthier food choices. However, to get students to eat more healthy foods and to reduce place waste in the long-term, there needs to be a focus on the palatability of foods.
  • Chefs can help to increase food palatability and train and introduce new ideas to current school staff. Having a chef is not necessarily expensive- they can help schools to control costs such as through inventory control and more efficient use of foods. Schools can also partner with each other to share the cost of a chef.
  • Change takes time. Children may need 10 or more exposures to healthy foods before enjoying them, so schools should not abandon healthier foods.

Learn more about this study from the abstract and from this Inside School Food interview with Juliana Cohen and Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread. In addition, Cohen recently presented findings from this study and her research at The Culinary Institute of America’s 2015 Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids National Leadership Summit: Increasing Produce Consumption: The Evidence for Chefs and Flavor.

Potential areas of future research in school nutrition include interventions at the high school level and higher income communities. Other research that Cohen is currently involved with includes looking at the impact of the Massachusetts School Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods and Beverages, and how healthier competitive foods may impact students’ overall diets in middle and high schools.

View some of the other school nutrition research that Cohen has done. For more on chefs and schools, read our blog post, Chefs Move to Schools with NFSMI, and visit our Chefs in Schools page in the JSI Resource Center.