By Jack Chen, BC Coalition for Healthy School Food Research Intern
In March 2022 I undertook a literature review of research on youth perspectives on school food programs (SFPs) in British Columbia. The idea was to identify research gaps and opportunities for additional youth engagement that could help shape the future of SFPs in BC.
I found 30 relevant articles using the search terms “youth perspective”, “student perspective”, “School food programs”, “Canada”, “North America”, five of which were based in North America (2 Canadian and 3 American studies) and used qualitative research methodologies to explore youths’ perspectives on SFPs from 2017 to 2022 1-4. Only one of these studies was based in British Columbia and involved BC students 7.
What I found interesting was that there were very few common themes in these five articles. Four studies found that youth were not satisfied with their current SFPs. They wanted to see more fresh produce, culturally appropriate food, and options that accommodate dietary restrictions to be offered in their SFPs 4. Key determinators that influenced youth perceptions of SFPs were the quality, variety, and affordability of the food 2.
Youth were also frustrated with the lack of meaningful opportunities to have a voice in the development of the SFPs. They suggested that staff and decision-makers might not know how much cafeteria selections are enjoyed (or not enjoyed) by the students. These youth believe that schools should have a mechanism for students to provide feedback 2,3.
In terms of the goals of SFPs, youth participants indicated that in addition to offering healthy food, SFPs activities such as growing and preparing food can help build youth mental resilience and cultivate a supportive environment for mental health promotion in schools 5,6. For example, in one study, youth expressed that school gardens can be used to promote physical activity, mental health and well-being, neighbourhood connections, as well as cross-curricular and inquiry-based educational outcomes 7.
Current Research Gap
The lack of literature on youths’ perspectives on SFPs shows that there’s a big gap and an opportunity for future research to hear the perspectives of those most impacted by SFPs – the students -- and to explore ways to empower youth to participate in the development of future SFPs, to increase student participation and satisfaction of food served at schools in BC and Canada.
Lessons For Future Research
Qualitative methodologies such as ‘Photovoice’ were commonly used in the existing literature by the researchers to generate rich and detailed descriptive data to showcase youths’ perspectives in SFPs and foster social change. It presents itself as a promising research methodology for future research.
One main limitation I found in these studies is that youth who chose to participate in the studies likely had some interest in the subject matter; thus, their views may not be representative of the student body at large. The perspectives of marginalized youths who are harder to reach might also have been missed 2. Future research is encouraged to explore new ways to recruit participants that represent a broader socioeconomic and geographic representation of the population to reflect a more collective youth voice on this topic.
In addition, it is important to consider that youth perspectives on school food are impacted by home food environments 8–11. Therefore, it may be of interest to the Coalition to consider the home environment in addition to the school environment in future youth engagement activities. Furthermore, future interventions aimed at increasing the consumption of nutritious school food in youth should incorporate a stronger parental component by identifying mechanisms to involve parents in designing school food programs and creating programs that support families with financial difficulties to have access to affordable fresh produce.
1. Margolin, A., Goto, K., Wolff, C. & Bianco, S. Let’s Talk Food: Elementary School Students’ Perceptions of School and Home Food Environment and the Impact of the Harvest of the Month Program on Their Dietary Attitudes and Behaviors. Int. J. Child, Youth Fam. Stud. 8, 154 (2018).
2. Spencer, R. A., McIsaac, J. L. D., Stewart, M., Brushett, S. & Kirk, S. F. L. Food in Focus: Youth Exploring Food in Schools Using Photovoice. J. Nutrition. Educ. Behaviour. 51, 1011–1019 (2019).
3. Thayer, E. K., Farquhar, S. A., Walkinshaw, L. P., Wool, J. L. & Jones-Smith, J. C. Youth Perceptions of the Food Environment in One Seattle, WA Neighborhood: A Qualitative Study. J. Hunger Environ. Nutrition. (2021) doi:10.1080/19320248.2021.1971136.
4. Harper, K. et al. Food justice youth development: using Photovoice to study urban school food systems*. Local Environ. 22, 791–808 (2017).
5. Weare, K. & Nind, M. Mental health promotion and problem prevention in schools: What does the evidence say? Health Promotion. Int. 26, i29–i69 (2011).
6. Roeser, R. W. To cultivate the positive. Introduction to the special issue on schooling and mental health issues. J. Sch. Psychol. 39, 99–110 (2001).
7. Lam, V., Romses, K. & Renwick, K. Exploring the relationship between school gardens, food literacy and mental well-being in youths using photovoice. Nutrients 11, 1354 (2019).
8. Crockett, S. J. & Sims, L. S. Environmental influences on children’s eating. J. Nutrition. Educ. 27, 235–249 (1995).
9. Patrick, H. & Nicklas, T. A. A Review of Family and Social Determinants of Children’s Eating Patterns and Diet Quality. J. Am. Coll. Nutrition. 24, 83–92 (2005).
10. Shepherd, J. et al. Young people and healthy eating: A systematic review of research on barriers and facilitators. Health Education Research vol. 21 239–257 (2006).
11. Story, M., Neumark-Sztainer, D. & French, S. Individual and environmental influences on adolescent eating behaviors. J. Am. Diet. Assoc.102, (2002).