by Nissa Hanna
Recently, visual comparisons between school lunches in the US and other countries have been circulating online. The latest buzzy “battle of the trays” content puts the US’s sad chicken nuggets against the fresh herbed salads of Italy, and oranges with the stems and leaves still attached in Greece. However, those viral images weren’t exactly accurate (they were, somewhat surreptitiously, a creative-license-as-marketing-strategy for a healthy restaurant chain). But they still captured — and stimulated — the cultural sentiment that US school cafeterias could and should do better.
And the truth is, the food choices in US school cafeterias are improving, nudged along by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act, which started rolling out in the 2012-2013 school year, and the Smart Snacks in School standard, which launched in the 2014-2015 year. Now, kids are seeing more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, more low-fat protein and dairy, and less sugar, fat and sodium at the lunch table and in vending machines. At first, most students weren’t so keen on the changes, but the majority has since warmed up to the wholesome meals. That’s not a surprise for those of us who are closely keeping an eye on this cohort. We’ve reported on industrious, social media-savvy kids advocating for better school lunches and the generations’ exposure to and involvement in the foodie culture.
In fact, the problem that kids face in the cafeteria is that they feel the food is low-quality, not that they necessarily equate healthy food with unappetizing food. And since school menus are limited by budgets and kitchen capabilities, the shift to fresh, homemade-like meals is a work-in-progress. As the quality and nutrition improves, this generation is learning that wellness doesn’t come at the cost of enjoyment, flavor and fun. So brands and marketers can expect that those with discerning tastes won’t just be a niche subset of Gen We. An appreciation for good food is becoming a baked-in characteristic of this cohort.
For more on the changes in elementary and secondary school cafeterias and how that’s influencing Gen We’s behaviors and attitudes, check out our trend report Learning to Eat Well.
photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr.com