Impact of the Environment on Food Choices and
Eating Habits of School-Age Children: A USDA-Sponsored Research
While it is generally agreed
that school-age children's dietary habits are influenced by personal and
environmental factors, literature and research on interventions aimed at
reinforcing healthy eating habits in the school environment are lacking. To
address this gap, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsored a
conference to prioritize future research on this issue.
The goal of the conference
was to: (1) identify gaps in the existing research related to the environmental
impact on food choices and eating patterns of school-age children, (2) develop
research priorities regarding the impact of school environments on students'
food choices and eating patterns, and (3) obtain the support of participants in
constructing a research agenda around the conference
and government officials representing diverse communities throughout the United
States named and focused on six key issues: important research topics on eating
choices and patterns in school children, limiting factors of research in this
area, outcome measures for a research agenda, influential individuals who have
the potential to impact school factors, factors that influence eating patterns,
and significant benefits of the research.
The conference resulted in a model
for future research in children's eating habits that incorporated the goals of
several agencies and institutions in ways that will further research and
education, which are necessary to understand and improve the environmental and
behavioral impact of children's food choices.
Healthy eating habits among school-age
children play a key role in the mental and physical development of our nation's
youth. Healthy eating habits promote growth and reduce many risks associated
with both immediate and long-term health problems. The importance of nutrition
education for our youth and of developing healthy eating patterns at an early
age have been recognized and supported as a nationwide initiative. However,
while the importance of education and other initiatives have been recognized, we
are still far from a comprehensive understanding of how children develop eating
behaviors and what influences children's food choices.
While initiatives are being
developed to promote the nutritional habits of school-age children, research
continues to look at how those habits and behaviors are developed and what
factors influence food choice. Different researchers have identified a number of
meta-categories, including the role of sensory attributes (Cardello, 1992), the
socio-cultural context (Rozin, 1996), the physical and social environment
(Meiselman, 1996), marketing (Van Trijp & Schifferstein, 1995), and economic
influences (Bonke, 1996).
Literature Review and
Environmental influences on food
choice. Dietary guidance and nutrition promotion are
recognized as necessary to change consumer behaviors (Porter, Kris-Etherton,
Borra, Christ-Erwin, Novelli, Foreyt, Goldberg, Nabors, Schwartz, Lewis, Layden,
& Economos, 1998). Determinants of food choice consist of much more than the
instance in which a consumer selects a product or ingests it. It is a complex
process that involves many contextual and environmental factors through a range
of decisions and evaluations. Marshall (1993) explains that choice is the result
of a sequence of stages through which the consumer navigates from "problem
recognition through search, alternative evaluation, choice, and finally [to]
post-purchase evaluation." It is clear that the sensory acceptability of the
item is only a small part of this complex process. Different researchers have
noted a number of important factors of influence in the choice process.
One such factor is food
acceptance, the interaction of the consumer with the sensory qualities of the
item. This includes appearance, texture, and flavor. Researchers speak of the
affinity for certain sensory attributes as a "food preference." Preference,
Cardello (1992) explains, is subject to a variety of factors outside of the
physiological response, including culture, expectations, and previous
experience. Furthermore, in evaluating food acceptance one also must consider
the individual's attitudes and behaviors that mediate or moderate their
preference, as well as situational influences such as physiological state, time
of day, and occasion (Rolls, Rowe, & Rolls, 1982).
Another dynamic meta-factor
that is especially salient among school-age children is the socio-cultural
context of food choice. Rozin (1996) outlines a range of socio-cultural
influences, including both indirect effects (influences not contingent upon a
social agent) and direct effects (social agents such as peers, parents, or
teachers as the source of influence). A large number of indirect social-cultural
effects have been identified, including availability, which is a supply-related
issue that reflects cultural and economic factors such as price (Ritson &
Hutchins, 1995; Rozin, 1996).
Rozin (1996) also illustrated
a number of indirect personal effects. These include norms, beliefs, knowledge,
and attributes of the consumer. Within this category are some important factors
to consider when looking at school-age children's food choice, including body
image. Rozin (1996) found that a culture's ideal body shape affects both how
much and what is eaten. This focus on body shape has special implications for
females. Knowledge and beliefs about food, such as which foods are thought to be
"good for you," are other indirect personal effects that influence food choice.
Knowledge and beliefs have special implications for those concerned with
schoolchildren's food choice as they point explicitly to the importance of
The U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) has made the implementation of dietary changes during
childhood a priority (USDA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995).
Concerns now are focused on the eating patterns of young people and the risk
factors for the development of chronic diseases as they age. Research suggests
that both adults and children are consuming more than the recommended amounts
from energy and fat and not following the recommendations for fruit, 100% juice,
and vegetables (Cullen, Baranowski, & Smith, 2001). One study noted that
healthful behaviors often shift as a child matures due to increased independence
in making food choices, as well as to environments that offer a greater variety
of foods (Lytle, Seifert, Greenstein, & McGovern,
Another socio-cultural factor
involves direct effects such as social pressure. This includes such
influences as role modeling and self-esteem. Research has shown that the food
choices of peers and teachers can influence the choices made by children (Birch,
1979). However, a 1996 study showed that the self-esteem of obese students did
not differ from that of students of normal weight (Pastore, Fisher, &
Friedman, 1996). Furthermore, social agents also have direct and potent effects
on the acquisition of the norms, beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes of the
individual through social influence and pressure.
An important meta-factor in
food choice is the context in which the food is served and consumed. This
includes the physical environment, including lighting, decoration, and comfort.
While suggestions and guidelines have been presented with regard to the physical
environment, little is known about food choice from an empirical standpoint.
Some studies on atmosphere have shown that music, climate, and other contextual
factors influence choice and consumption (Meiselman, Johnson, Reeve, &
The contextual factors also
include the accessibility of food, which specifically relates to vendors, and
the display of the food. This factor has direct implications for school
foodservice layout. Meiselman (1996) found that requiring students to undergo
more effort (by making them go through a separate cafeteria line to get dessert)
resulted in a reduced selection rate for those items.
Another important meta-factor
recognized by Van Trijp and Schifferstein (1995) includes marketing and consumer
behavior. These researchers identified marketing instruments as the "4 Ps" of
the marketing objective: product, price, promotion, and place/distribution.
Product includes such aspects as quality, packaging, brand images, and loyalty.
Price includes not only the costs of the product to the consumer, but also the
perceived value of the good. Promotion covers brand recognition, and
place/distribution is the specific visibility in the venue and or availability
of unseasonable or exotic items. A wide array of tools available to marketers
has significant influence on food choice. These include media, such as
television, magazines, and the Internet. Children receive more information about
food, nutrition, and health from media than from any other source (Porter et
Concerns have been raised
about whether advertising may be harmful to children by sending harmful messages
about eating behaviors (Stanbrook, 1997). Some educators and policymakers have
begun to focus on the potential positive aspects of advertising, such as
promoting health education and awareness through "healthier"
A number of economic
influences on food choice also have been identified. These include
considerations of family structure and economy. As more children live in
single-parent households and homes with two working parents, the economy of time
becomes a major consideration in the types of foods prepared for children. Other
concerns in this category include discretionary income and the amount of money
available for food purchase.
The purpose of the conference was to
address gaps in current research and literature related to the impact of
environment on food choices and eating patterns of school-age children. Two
primary goals guided the conference:
- To develop research priorities around
the impact of school foodservice environments on students' food choices and
- To obtain support of invited
participants in building a research agenda around the conference
researchers, practitioners, and government representatives, were brought
together at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) on March 19 and 20,
2000. Invitations to participate were made by the conference committee based on
an individual's personal research agenda or on this person's active involvement
in the school food environment. Forty-three participants were chosen by Penn
State and USDA's undersecretary to attend the conference, with 23 individual
The conference committee
consisted of 14 researchers, 4 facilitators, 3 USDA representatives, and 2
representatives of the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI).
Committee co-chairs Peter Bordi, PhD and Sara Parks, PhD, RD also developed a
research model for conference participants to review and provide feedback. The
committee collaborated on the development of the key questions that would drive
conference discussions, and created a set of topics that would evolve as a
result of the participants' and facilitators' efforts prior to, during, and
after the conference.
During the opening session,
Dorothy Caldwell, then-special assistant for nutrition and nutrition education,
USDA, clarified the purpose and goals for the conference and charged
participants with creating a research agenda and model that would inform and
guide nutrition research over the next three years. Shirley Watkins, USDA's
then-undersecretary, also joined the conference and highlighted the agency's
position in the conference's guiding themes and agenda.
Conference format. The format for the conference was unique, as participants worked
simultaneously in Penn State's Management Development Technology Center (MDTC)
using the GroupsystemsŪ software to collect information from participants
regarding the following key issues:
- Important research topics on eating
choice and patterns among schoolchildren;
- Limiting factors of research in this
- Outcome measures for a research
- Influential individuals who have the
potential to impact school factors;
- Factors that influence eating
- Significant benefits of the
Groupsystems software is
considered a Group Support System (GSS), which is an interactive computer-based
environment that supports the involvement and simultaneous participation toward
completion of joint tasks. Groupsystems is a collaborative software tool
utilized on a Local Area Network (LAN) that allows for simultaneous input of
ideas or issues by all participants in a shared work environment using a laptop
computer. GSS frequently is used in the MDTC to enhance strategic planning, new
product development, and training needs assessment. Any mechanical limitations
have been addressed through time and development; however, personal limitations
such as typing speed, conference time, and participants' personality can hinder
the full effective use of the Groupsystems program.
Use of Groupsystems for this
project provided each participant equal opportunity to input ideas or issues in
an environment that allowed for anonymous discussions and evaluation based on
merit, not source. The participants developed raw, brainstormed lists of
responses to the conference's guiding questions and, through facilitated
discussions, identified themes in the data and grouped the data accordingly. The
participants invested time in online and offline discussions, delving deeper
into the six key issues guiding the conference. Research topics were identified
from the data and prioritized. The committee analyzed responses and presented
findings in an executive summary and set of recommendations. Results are
outlined in the following section.
recommendations were developed to serve as a foundation for future research and
- The revised research model (Figure
1) should serve as a basis for encouraging multi-disciplinary research
focusing on the environmental impact on school-age children's food choices and
eating patterns. Based on participants' prioritization, the research
priorities that need immediate attention are influence of school staff, the
physical environment, and children's eating patterns. The top research
priority was the impact of the home and mealtime
- Conference results should be broadly
disseminated to all major professional organizations and to all of the
following key constituent groups: researchers, child nutrition practitioners,
policymakers, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents, to name a
- USDA may:
- Facilitate the research agenda
investigating the priorities listed above;
- Develop guidelines for model
- Expand partnering opportunities
among research teams;
- (Plan future conferences and
- Encourage the development of
graduate/undergraduate courses to prepare future practitioners and
researchers in this area;
- Consider establishing a special
incentive fund for faculty for new research development initiatives to
encourage and facilitate their entry into this under-researched arena;
- Develop marketing campaigns to
create an awareness of the key issues identified during the conference. This
campaign can be facilitated through print, radio, television, and Internet
- Higher Education
- Develop partnering opportunities,
especially with other higher education institutions, to expand opportunities
for students to develop research;
- Consider the development of a
Center for Excellence to Study the Factors Impacting Healthy Eating
Environments for School-Age Children;
- Strengthen their relationships with
USDA, the American School Food Service Association, and NFSMI to provide
leadership in implementing this research agenda.
- Host an annual national forum to
facilitate and support the exchange of ideas;
- Facilitate these activities through
print, radio, television, and Internet media; and
- Offer internships and practica that
provide practical opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in
the area of environmental impacts on food choices and eating habits of
school-age children in concert with the students' academic
- Researchers could pursue funds from
private foundations that will be used for new research initiatives in this
- There should be increased publishing
of current research in existing journals.
It is clear that changes in
eating environments can have profound effects on children's behaviors. These
findings can be useful for those individuals involved in changing food choices
in a more healthful direction. In the early 1990s, healthful eating was directed
at altering food products and altering children's attitudes and behavior.
Altering the school environment by manipulating physical and social dimensions
is a very inexpensive and simple alternative that needs to be better understood.
Results of this conference can provide meaningful direction to practitioners
actively involved with feeding our nation's children.
Further, those actively
engaged with public policy issues now have a standard upon which to base their
platforms. More work is needed to support specific guidelines and
This conference was the
initial step in the formulation of a framework to guide the research in this
area. Additional research focused on specific issues will be the logical next
step. However, the interest and enthusiasm brought to the conference by
participants indicated the existence of a core group of researchers and
practitioners who can champion the movement.
The authors wish to thank
USDA for sponsoring the conference and the following participants for their time
and efforts: David Levitsky, Cornell University; Nadine Mann, East Baton Rouge
Parish (Louisiana) School District; Bernestine McGee, Louisiana Southern
University; Deborah Carr and Mary Kay Meyer, National Food Service Management
Institute; Louise Lapeze, USDA; Leann Birch, Martha Conklin, David Cranage,
Geoffrey Godbey, Carolyn Lambert, and Sara Parks, The Pennsylvania State
University; Marcia Smith, Polk County Schools, Florida; Kweethai Neill, Sam
Houston State University; Tom McGlinchy, The School District of Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania; David Metzen, The School District of St. Paul, Minnesota; Vivian
Pilant, South Carolina Department of Education; Alfonse Sanchez, Texas Tech
University; Susan Johnson, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center; Leslie
Lytle, University of Minnesota; and Janice Dodds, University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill.
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Peter L. Bordi is
assistant professor, School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Recreation Management, The
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. John E. Park is
associate director, Management Development Programs and Services, The
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Shirley Watkins is
former undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services, U.S. Department of
Agriculture, and food and nutrition strategic business consultant, Silver
Spring, MD. Dorothy Caldwell is nutrition consultant and former special
assistant to the undersecretary of agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, U.S.
Department of Agriculture. Cynthia A. DeVitis is research assistant,
School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Recreational Management, The Pennsylvania State
University, University Park, PA.