Marketing school meals

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement several changes to the National School Lunch Program, including requiring school meals to contain more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and has led to healthier snacks in vending machines, in snack bars, at school events and during classroom parties (check out the USDA’s Tools for Schools, which provides support to schools as they implement the new nutrition guidelines).

However, while these efforts encourage students to build healthier eating habits, a successful school meal program requires more than just access to healthier options. Schools often face issues with budget and time constraints, lack adequate kitchen equipment, and face competition from outside foods. In addition, children can be hard-to-please customers and unreceptive to change. Luckily, schools can address many of these challenges by using simple, cost-free marketing strategies, including changing the way foods are displayed and placed in the cafeteria.[1]

Why market school meals?

Better nutrition and academics

For some children, school meals account for more than half of their daily calorie intake. Improved nutrition can lead to increased focus and attention, improved test scores, better classroom behavior and a better understanding of healthy eating behaviors. Research has shown that children who participate in the National School Lunch Program have better nutrient intakes than students who do not, and eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function, improved memory, reduced absenteeism and improved mood.2

Increase school meal participation

Higher student participation in school meal programs helps these programs maintain a healthy budget through increased federal reimbursements. The National School Lunch Program provides per-meal cash reimbursements to schools, as well as food supplements, based on the number of lunches they serve. This can increase the school meal program budget, allowing schools to increase nutrition quality, purchase much-needed equipment and provide training for food service staff, all of which can help to improve participation.3

Junk and fast foods target children

The food industry spends $1.8 billion per year in the United States on marketing foods that are high in calories, fats, sugar and/or sodium to young people. Food marketing has a direct and powerful impact on young people’s food preferences and eating behaviors, exacerbating issues with unhealthy diets and childhood obesity. These unhealthy foods also compete with the school meal program and, in turn, drain student participation and compromise student health. While schools cannot match the marketing budgets of these fast-food giants, schools can focus on their lunchroom designs and the promotion of healthful eating behaviors.4

Promote healthy eating with a smarter lunchroom

A “smarter lunchroom” is one that influences kids toward choosing healthier, more-nutritious foods, giving them an opportunity to select and consume a balanced diet. These lunchrooms demonstrate sustainable, low-cost/free solutions, with a focus on the environment and the promotion of healthful eating behaviors. More than 30 million children are fed by the National School Lunch Program, creating a significant opportunity to apply the smarter lunchroom concept in school cafeterias: 


  • Display whole fruits near the register to put them in the spotlight.
  • Draw attention to fruit with signs and verbal prompts to grab students’ attention.


  • Give vegetables creative names and display these names on a poster or menu board.
  • Create a student committee for food naming.


  • Create a convenience line for students purchasing only healthy items.
  • Move unhealthy foods behind healthy ones.
  • Place reimbursable meal components at the snack window.


  • Ensure white milk accounts for at least one-third of the milk displayed.
  • Place white milk in every cooler in the lunchroom.
  • Place white milk in the front of each cooler.


  • Place the most nutrient-filled entrée first in line and make it prominent.
  • Give target entrées creative names and display them on a poster or menu board.5

More ideas for marketing healthy choices

  • Start a school wellness council at your school and promote wellness policies that encourage healthy eating and physical activity. Wellness councils can include teachers, food service members, other school staff, parents and even students. Wellness council activities include organizing a farm field trip or a chef visit to the school, starting a student club to market school lunches, having students vote on school menu items and starting a school garden. Wellness councils can also bring together various school personnel to create school wide policies on concession stand food.
  • Organize healthy fundraisers instead of selling unhealthy foods that undermine school health. Schools have organized healthy fundraisers by hosting walkathons, grocery store gift-card sales, book fairs and more.
  • Morning announcements can help create excitement among students about healthier foods and beverages.
  • Create a healthy snack list of foods that help improve energy and focus throughout the day, and distribute the list to parents and school staff at the beginning of the year.
  • Use nonfood rewards in the classroom, such as five minutes of extra recess or play time.
  • Social media is a great way to get students and parents excited about healthy school meals.
  • Make access to school breakfast easier by serving breakfast in the classroom.6

[1]Kaiser Permanente. "Healthy Eating." Thriving Schools: A Partnership for Healthy Students, Staff and Teachers. Accessed February 12, 2015.; and Winslow Gibbons, Heather. "Marketing Healthy Choices in the School Cafeteria." January 2009. by Division/School Support/Healthy Schools/Marketing Healthy Choices in the School Cafeteria.pdf.

2Kaiser Permanente. "Making the Case." Thriving Schools: A Partnership for Healthy Students, Staff and Teachers. Accessed February 12, 2015.

3FRAC. "National School Lunch Program." Food Research Action Center: National School Lunch Program Comments. Accessed February 12, 2015.; and FRAC. "National School Lunch Program: Trends and Factors Affecting Student Participation." National School Lunch Report. January 1, 2015. Accessed February 12, 2015.

4Rudd Center. "Food Marketing to Youth." Accessed February 12, 2015.

5Kaiser Permanente. "Smarter Lunchrooms Movement." Thriving Schools: A Partnership for Healthy Students, Staff and Teachers. Accessed February 12, 2015.

6 Kaiser Permanente. "Healthy Eating." Thriving Schools: A Partnership for Healthy Students, Staff and Teachers. Accessed February 12, 2015.