Theses Doctoral

Feeding the Minds of Children: Teachers' Role in School Lunch

Olarte, Deborah Ann

Objective. As childhood obesity continues to threaten the overall health of young people, K-12 teachers are uniquely poised to advocate for, and support food and nutrition, school lunch and student health. Yet, classroom teachers are largely uninvolved in school lunch. School lunch is typically viewed as separate from the rest of the school day and not seen as an educational opportunity. The purpose of this dissertation was to develop an understanding of the role teachers could play in supporting, encouraging, and shifting the culture that surrounds school lunch in the United States.

Methods. To accomplish this purpose, this dissertation had two studies. Study One utilized ten K–12 public school teachers. The data collected were from a descriptive characteristics questionnaire, theatrical data collection workshops, and individual interviews. These data provided an understanding of teachers’ attitudes and perceptions of school lunch, and if and how they currently provide food and nutrition education and support school lunch. The data provided an understanding of obstacles that keep teachers from supporting school lunch, recommendations and resources for teachers to support the school lunch program, and links between food and nutrition education to school lunch. Study Two developed an understanding of the realities, feasibility and experiences of 39 teachers from six schools while implementing a school wellness initiative in Anchorage, Alaska. The non-prescriptive wellness initiative in which the teachers operated, allocated 30 minutes for lunch and 54 minutes of physical activity each day, in which 30 of those minutes was allotted for recess. The teachers were regularly in the cafeteria. The data collected were from focus groups (one per school) to explore teachers’ experiences implementing the wellness initiative.

Data Analysis. For Study One, the descriptive characteristics questionnaire was analyzed using descriptive statistics and frequencies. For Studies One and Two, the theatrical data collection workshops, individual interviews, and focus groups were transcribed, coded and analyzed for themes and domains using NVivo version 12 for Mac. Inter-rater reliability was conducted to ensure statistical agreement in the codes (k = 0.78).

Results. Study One: the teachers had a general dislike of the school lunch served when they were children. As teachers, they generally disliked the school lunch as well. However, they saw the importance of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in providing meals for low-income students. Additionally, they thought it was very important for all students to be well-nourished to do well at school. Teachers made efforts to see that their students were fed by providing healthy snacks, modeling healthy eating in the cafeteria, and incorporating food and nutrition into their curricula. The participants believed teachers could play a greater role in school lunch by regularly discussing school lunch, eating with students, gardening and cooking with students, and/or providing positive messaging about lunch. However, there were barriers to overcome, including lack of administrative support, poor food quality, poor cafeteria culture, and a lack of adequate professional development. The teachers felt opportunities for professional development related to school lunch would provide greater self-efficacy, knowledge, and skills to overcome the barriers to playing a greater role in school lunch.Study Two: the teachers believed the wellness initiative had the best intentions for their students. Teachers found physical activity breaks to be beneficial for students and saw improvement in their students’ focus, attention, and behavior. Teachers also observed students eating more due to the extra time at lunch. Younger students benefitted the most from the extra time. However, timing and scheduling of the physical activity component was the largest barrier along with lack of administrative support in some schools. Additionally, teachers observed poor student behavior in the cafeteria as a result of the extra time. The teachers did not report eating with students or encouraging students to eat school lunch.

Conclusions. Because they are growing and developing, diets that provide adequate calories and nutrient-dense food are vital for children to reach their highest potentials. Despite its negative stereotype, school lunch provides a reliable source of nutrition to food insecure children. The research suggests teachers can play a large role in school lunch and have the greatest power to act as agents of cultural change in schools but need the support of their respective schools’ administrations. School lunch-based professional development would assist teachers in accomplishing this momentous task.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Behavioral Nutrition
Thesis Advisors
Koch, Pamela Ann
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 3, 2021