Panel Paper: What's for Lunch? The Relationship between Menu Variety and School Lunch Participation

Thursday, November 7, 2019
I.M Pei Tower: Terrace Level, Columbine (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Saied Toossi, Center for Policy Research and Amy Ellen Schwartz, Syracuse University


Students stand to gain a lot from school lunch, which has been found to improve their nutritional intake, health outcomes, and academic performance. Schools also stand to benefit as higher student participation can boost test scores and help schools avoid potential sanctions under accountability systems. However, accruing these benefits requires that students participate, yet nearly half of do not. As some studies have linked greater food choice to increased liking and consumption among children and adolescents, menu variety in school lunch may be an important policy lever for increasing lunch participation. This study constitutes the first large-scale investigation of this relationship. Using detailed longitudinal student-level data and exploiting variation in the number and types of menus offered across over 900 New York City (NYC) schools, we examine the association between menu variety and lunch participation among middle and high school students.

We find that menu variety does matter for lunch participation. Students in schools offering more than one lunch menu are more likely to participation in lunch. Extending the main analysis to investigate the relationship between the number of specific food items served and lunch participation suggests that the type of food added matters; the addition of a distinct salad to the set of meals offered is associated with lower participation. Responsiveness to menu variety also varies considerably by student characteristics, suggesting that certain populations are better served when offered greater choice and that menus can help close racial and economic gaps in school lunch participation. Lastly, menu variety is linked to higher test scores and greater attendance, with no discernible implications for weight outcomes.

This study contributes significantly to both the literature on food choice and take-up among school-aged children and adolescents as well as that on participation in the National School Lunch Program. Additionally, by examining an important component of the implementation of school lunch, it informs the efforts that many school districts are expending to increase lunch participation by reformulating their menus.