URBANA, Ill. – It can be a struggle to get kids to eat a well-balanced, nutritious meal at home. Imagine the challenge of encouraging 1.9 million children in schools each day to eat healthier foods. University of Illinois Extension has been awarded $4.5 million over three years to help by providing training and education to school food-service professionals statewide.
Funding for the program comes from the Illinois State Board of Education, which oversees the USDA’s National School Lunch Program at over 4,000 sites in Illinois. As part of its commitment to improve the quality and appeal of these programs and reduce food waste, the board contracted with U of I Extension to develop and conduct in-person and web-based training that supports child nutrition standards and promotes a more appealing cafeteria environment.
“Something as simple as renaming cafeteria items or presenting them in more appealing ways has been shown to encourage children to make healthier food choices,” said Jennifer McCaffrey, assistant dean for family and consumer sciences with U of I Extension. “These options should be front and center in the school cafeteria line. We’ll be working with school food-service professionals to develop strategies so students will ultimately put healthier foods on their lunch tray—and eat them.”
McCaffrey says the $4.5 million project will launch in January 2016 with a monthly webinar series. A new web-training portal will follow in March. Schools interested in training can contact Extension for on-site customized sessions and technical assistance.
Extension educators will draw on the “smarter lunchroom” approach based in part on research conducted at University of Illinois by professor Brian Wansink. Wansink is currently at Cornell University.
“This agreement builds on our strengths and success working with food and nutrition programs across the state,” said George Czapar, associate dean and director for the U of I Office of Extension and Outreach. “Healthy meals in the lunchroom help children focus on learning in the classroom.”
According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, in the 2015 school year, 1,906,590 children were offered meals by the school lunch programs. Just over half (981,487) of those children were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Children who participate in the National School Lunch Program tend to eat more nutritious food at lunchtime than children who do not participate, according to USDA research.
“University of Illinois Extension is known for its nutrition education programs and innovative approaches to learning,” said Mark Haller, director of nutrition and wellness for the State Board of Education. “We’re thrilled to offer cutting-edge training to school food-service professionals statewide.”