Why aren’t Philly students eating?

Despite free breakfast and lunch, students are often not eating; social and behavioral sciences professor Gabriella McLoughlin is determined to find out why.


It’s a scene familiar to many students in lunchrooms across the United States: students huddled around cafeteria tables, idly playing with or nibbling food, never finishing their trays. 

Nobody really knows why the food goes uneaten — whether it’s due to quality, social pressures or the harsh fluorescence of a typical cafeteria — but that’s just what social and behavioral sciences professor Gabriella McLoughlin and her research team are working to figure out.

For the next five years, McLoughlin and her team are collaborating with the School District of Philadelphia to research ways to increase meal participation at eight different public middle and high schools, all of which offer free breakfast and lunches to students. 

“Before we can even begin to talk about things like education attainment or attendance, we have to get our meal programs in check, and we have to understand how to best implement them because if we don’t, then we can’t really say that we’re truly educating students and providing for them in the best ways possible, because their basic needs aren’t met,” McLoughlin said.

For students facing food insecurity, which includes 22.4 percent of Philadelphia families, free school meal programs are meant to act as a safety net, ensuring they get the nourishment they need. 

Food insecurity affects concentration, memory, mood and motor skills, inhibiting a student’s ability to learn, and 80 percent of teachers notice the negative effects hunger has on students, according to No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit working to end childhood food insecurity. 

McLoughlin began planning for the study in 2021 when she met with school district representatives to determine the food service program’s needs. The group decided to conduct research after schools struggled to get food to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the need for stronger school food service programs.

The first year of the study, which kicked off in August, focuses on needs assessment and involves gathering data from the eight anonymous schools. McLoughlin and her team are currently observing breakfast and lunch service and conducting interviews with students, staff and family to evaluate the problem. 

The researchers also receive feedback from Philadelphia residents who aren’t connected to the district in hopes of diversifying the input they’re getting, an uncommon practice for food service studies. The team hopes the additional input will help them interpret the findings through a community-engaged lens.

“I really wanted to get a sense of what [schools] needed rather than me just coming down from the ivory tower and saying, ‘This is what you should do,’” McLoughlin said.

The team is keeping an open mind to all possible causes of students’ decreased participation and are taking several factors into consideration including food quality, meal time and cafeteria atmosphere. 

“I am looking forward to a more rich conversation and not having it be narrowed down to ‘There’s too much sugar in X, Y and Z,’ or ‘There’s too much of something in a specific food,’” said Amy Virus, manager of administrative and support services in the School District of Philadelphia’s Division of Food Services, who works with McLoughlin on the research.

The remainder of the research will be adjusted to fit the outcome of the first phase, with the remainder of the research following a rough outline.

The second year will focus on analyzing the data collected and working with the school district to derive a pilot test of changes to implement at the schools. The pilot test will be put into practice throughout years three and four of the study. 

After evaluating the pilot test results and developing a method for engaging more students with their meals, the team will use the rest of year five to put the plan into action in different schools.

Those involved with the project hope the results demonstrate the connection between food service and education in schools because when students go without food, they are less able to develop academically. In highlighting and proving these ties, the team hopes to emphasize the need for change.

“When the academic side realizes that food services is a part of the education process, we will have better participation,” said Lisa Norton, the district’s food services director, who also works with McLoughlin on the research.

The research process recognizes the difficulties in quantifying how much students eat in comparison to the meals they receive because food waste isn’t measured. The team aims to combat the obstacle by focusing largely on gathering qualitative data in the interview process. 

Above all, the team is working to make sure students are getting the nutrition they need, both in Philadelphia and throughout the United States. McLoughlin and the team hope to apply the study’s findings to schools across the country because decreased meal participation in middle and high school is not unique to Philadelphia.

“We have millions and millions of dollars spent on this program every year,” McLoughlin said. “And it’s one of the biggest safety nets for students to prevent food insecurity. So we need to be able to implement this well, and with an equity mindset, because if we don’t, then we’re essentially not able to provide this big safety net for students and families who need it.”

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