Food for Thought: Cafeteria Food Purchases On The Rise

Food for Thought: Cafeteria Food Purchases On The Rise

Izzy Fawcett, Staff Writer

During my junior year, spicy chicken sandwiches became a staple in the Wheaton Warrenville South High School cafeteria. Warm, moist sandwiches wrapped in shiny aluminum foil were all the craze. The panini bar had its time in the spotlight as well, offering toppings from ripe tomatoes to crunchy lettuce. For the first time in my high school career, there was a line of excited, hungry teenagers flooding out of the cafeteria and into the lunchroom. 

It is evident that more students are buying food from the cafeteria, and it is likely that the number of students buying cafeteria food is linked to healthy food options. 

In a survey conducted among more than 60 students from Wheaton Warrenville South, 50% of students believe that more people are buying cafeteria food. An overwhelming 91.9% believe that there is a variety of food being served, which contributes to the increase in popularity.

Wheaton Warrenville South students take advantage of the cafeteria because it is simply more convenient. “It saves time in the morning as opposed to packing a lunch,” said one Wheaton Warrenville South student. “That takes time out of my schedule.” Another student reported, “It’s really convenient if you didn’t bring enough food or you are really hungry.” 

More than 84% of students reported that they only wait five minutes or less to pay for their food, which further contributes to the convenience aspect of buying cafeteria food and, therefore, increases the likelihood students that will come again. In addition, 79.5% of students said that they are either satisfied or very satisfied with the cafeteria food.

While the number of students buying food from the cafeteria is generally trending upward, there is still stigma surrounding the cafeteria food itself, and it exists on the basis of health. 

Despite misconceptions classifying kids as junk food fiends, students are attracted to healthier alternatives. “There are not enough healthy food options,” said one Wheaton Warrenville South student. Another student said, “I make healthier food at home.”

However, cafeteria food has shown significant improvement in the last decade since former First Lady, Michelle Obama, unveiled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and school cafeterias turned in their pizzas and replaced them with sandwiches. “School meals have come a long way since I used to eat them,” said Juliana Cohen, assistant professor of nutrition at the Chan School. “With the updated school meal standards, they’re now serving more whole grains, greater vegetable varieties, and more fruit. It’s substantially healthier than what I was served as a child.” 

According to the Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity and the National Center for Education Statistics, more children qualify for the free and reduced lunch program than ever before. Roughly 70% of Illinois students qualify for reduced price lunches and the federal breakfast program, which helps explain the higher number of students buying cafeteria food.

“Research shows that receiving free or reduced-price school lunches reduces food insecurity, obesity rates and poor health,” reported the Food Research and Action Center. “In addition, the new school meal nutrition standards are having a positive impact on student food selection and consumption, especially for fruits and vegetables.” Healthier alternatives in the cafeteria promote a better lifestyle among students.

As a school and as a nation, we have taken major strides in improving the quality of cafeteria food and the number of students who take advantage of it. However, in order to keep this trend going, parents of financially stable households must be willing to encourage their children to try the cafeteria food as well because it is not the same processed junk food that they were served as kids.

The healthy lunch initiative needs greater community participation in order to be truly impactful for future generations. “The progress K-12 schools have made toward serving healthier and more appetizing lunches may stall unless more middle- and upper-middle-class parents can be persuaded to let their kids buy lunch at school,” said Jennifer Gaddis, an expert of school lunch policy. “Without greater participation from children paying for lunch, local school districts will lack the funds to maintain the gains in quality.” 

More than 25% of students who participated in the survey reported that they have never bought cafeteria food, which shows that more than a quarter of the Wheaton Warrenville South student body serves as untapped potential.

However, the future of cafeteria food at Wheaton Warrenville South is promising due to the rising number of students who rely on free and reduced lunch. Also, the healthy options now provided in the cafeteria attract more students to purchase food. Nevertheless, the program needs more middle and upper class involvement in order to make a difference.