Background

The 2012 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) resulted in healthier and more nutrient-dense school meals. Despite positive nutritional changes, reactions to the new school meals have been mixed. Parental perceptions of school meals and children’s school meal participation before and after HHFKA are examined.

Methods

Two independent panels of households with at least one child age 3-18 in 4 New Jersey cities were surveyed. Data were collected in 2009/2010 for panel 1 (n=1026), prior to HHFKA implementation, and in 2014 for panel 2 (n=733), two year after HHFKA implementation. The survey included questions about the child’s school meal participation, parent’s perception of healthfulness of school meals and other key demographics. Multivariable analysis examined the association between parental perceptions and children’s school meal participation after adjust for demographic covariates including children’s eligibility for free and reduced price meals.Analysis is limited to households with school aged children.

Results

In panel 1, 79% of parents rated school meals as “somewhat healthy” or “healthy” compared to 81% in panel 2. In panel 1, 89% of the children participated in school lunch compared to 85% in panel 2. Among respondents who rated perceptions of school meals the lowest, a higher percentage of their children participated in school meals in panel 2 compared to panel 1 (91% vs 77%, p = .033). In multivariable analysis, in panel 1, positive parental perceptions of school meals was significantly associated with children’s participation (p<0.001); however this relationship was not seen in panel 2.

Conclusions

An improvement in school meal quality post HHFKA may have contributed to the change in relationship between parental perception and children’s school meal participation.