Parental Beliefs Toward the
Related to Elementary Student Participation
Research was conducted to determine the level of correlation among
parents' beliefs and intentions to encourage their elementary schoolchildren to
participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and their children's
actual participation. Based on focus group input and guided by the Theory of
Reasoned Action, a 60-item Parent School Lunch Survey (PSLS) was developed to
measure the strength of parents' beliefs toward encouraging their elementary
schoolchildren to participate in the NSLP. A Likert-type scale of "strongly
disagree" (1) to "strongly agree" (7) was used to measure all items. Also
determined by the PSLS were children's grades, genders, and the number of
children in grades K-12 in the family. Each parent (n=960) who completed the
PSLS and provided signed permission to obtain data on his/her child's NSLP
participation was matched with this data. Information on NSLP participation of
each child was obtained during a 30-day period (20 school lunch meals) from
school lunch records provided by the school foodservice directors at seven
In this research, 79% of parents "intended to encourage their
children to participate in the NSLP." Parents' intentions to encourage their
children to participate in the NSLP were shown to have a strong correlation
(r=0.58, p<0.01) with their children's actual participation.
Based on this research, parents should be viewed as an important
customer of the NSLP. The actions of school foodservice directors and future
research efforts should be better oriented with an assessment of parents'
beliefs toward the NSLP, and should involve and view parents as an important
part of the program.
Most studies of student participation in the National School Lunch
Program (NSLP) have concentrated only on students in secondary schools or on the
K-12 student population as a whole (Akin, Guilkey, Popkin, & Wyckoff, 1983;
Fogleman, Dutcher, McProud, Nelkien, & Lins, 1992; Marples & Spilman,
1995; Maurer, 1984; Meyer & Conklin, 1998; Morcos & Spears, 1992). Few
studies have looked exclusively at NSLP participation rates of elementary
students to identify the variables and factors that influence this population's
participation (Barnes, 1988; Meyer, 1999; Perkins, Roach, & Vaden, 1980).
During the elementary school years, children's attitudes most
often reflect those held by adults who are important to them, such as parents,
teachers, and those in their family group (Klausmeier & Ripple, 1971). Even
during the adolescent years, the majority of children hold attitudes that are in
considerable agreement with those of their parents (Cobb, 2001). Parents'
attitudes toward the NSLP have been shown to influence their children's degree
of participation in the NSLP (Akin et al., 1983; Fogleman et al., 1992; Marples
& Spilman, 1995).
Previous research has established parental influence on elementary
student NSLP participation. However, research has not thoroughly identified
which beliefs contribute to parents' intentions toward encouraging their
children's participation in the NSLP, or the importance parents place on these
beliefs. In this study, the researchers chose to incorporate the Theory of
Reasoned Action (TRA) (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980) as a guide to investigating
school lunch participation. Incorporating a theory into research assists
researchers in identifying variables and constructs that should be monitored,
measured, or compared during the research (Glanz, Lewis, & Rimer, 1997).
The TRA is a research tool used to measure individuals' intentions
to perform a given behavior based on their attitude toward performing that
behavior. Intention to perform a behavior also is influenced by an individual's
subjective norm, i.e., what relevant others think they should do (Ajzen &
Fishbein, 1980; McKenzie & Smeltzer, 1997). Described as a unidirectional
structure, the TRA provides a conceptual framework (model) for linking behavior
to specific antecedents such as personal beliefs, attitudes, social support, and
intentions. The TRA has been used widely in studies of attitudes and behaviors
within the field of social psychology and has been applied successfully to other
studies of consumer choice situations (Becker & Gibson, 1998; Crawley &
Koballa, 1994; Sheppard, Hartwick, & Warshaw, 1988). However, no
publications have been found reporting that the TRA was used to address parents'
beliefs and intentions toward the NSLP.
When predicting behavior, the TRA uses five constructs leading up
to the actual behavior being studied. The first four constructs--behavioral
beliefs, normative beliefs, attitudes toward the behavior, and subjective
norm--assist in predicting the fifth construct: behavioral intention. The TRA
does not include external variables such as personality traits or demographics
in its model. External variables may influence behavior, but only to the extent
that they influence the determinant of that behavior as identified by the
constructs of the TRA model (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980).
This research was designed to determine the level of correlation
between parents' beliefs and intentions to encourage their elementary
schoolchildren's participation in the NSLP with their children's actual
participation. The most recent published study the researchers could find that
investigated the beliefs of parents of elementary schoolchildren toward the NSLP
was by Barnes (1988). In addition, the researchers could find no recently
published studies regarding the importance parents placed on their beliefs
toward the NSLP. This research looked exclusively at the attitudes, beliefs, and
importance placed on those beliefs of parents toward encouraging their
elementary schoolchildren to participate in the NSLP.
The TRA was incorporated into this research because of its
applicability to identifying and predicting behavioral intentions. Using one
group (parents) to predict another group's (children) behavior extends outside
the traditional use of the TRA model. However, the researchers believe use of
the TRA, as a guideline, is appropriate, since research suggests that children
have similar attitudes and beliefs as their parents (Berk, 2002; McDevitt &
Ormrod, 2002). Additionally, a meta-analysis of past research incorporating the
TRA has shown its strong predictive value, even when investigating situations
and activities that do not fall exclusively within conditions originally
specified for the model (Sheppard et al., 1988).
The researchers used qualitative and quantitative methods to
obtain parents' beliefs toward encouraging their elementary schoolchildren to
participate in the NSLP. Qualitative research methods were employed in the form
of focus group discussions (Krueger & Morgan, 1997) to identify parents'
beliefs toward encouraging their children to participate in the NSLP.
An instrument was developed to measure the five constructs of the
TRA model using beliefs obtained from parents during focus group discussions,
information gathered from a review of literature, and input from a panel of
experts. A seven-point Likert-type scale of strongly disagree=1 to strongly
agree=7 was used to measure the strength of agreement toward each item included
on the pilot survey instrument.
Forty-one parents who met the same criteria as parents
included in the focus group discussions completed the pilot survey instrument. A
critique sheet was included with the pilot survey instrument to obtain
additional information, such as clarity of questions and ease of completion.
Statistical analysis software (SPSS version 9) was used to analyze the pilot
instrument for reliability and validity. Exploratory factor analysis and
internal consistency analysis (Rossi, Wright, & Anderson, 1983) were
conducted on the pilot survey instrument. Based on the results of the analyses,
the pilot survey was revised and titled Parent School Lunch Survey (PSLS). Along
with three demographic items (child's grade, gender, and number of children in
grades K-12 in the family), the PSLS included the following number of items for
each TRA construct:
- Behavioral Beliefs: 44 items (22 behavioral beliefs and a
corresponding 22 "outcome evaluations," which measure the importance the
parent places on the belief);
- Normative Beliefs: 8 items (4 normative beliefs, or beliefs of
people who are important to each parent, and 4 corresponding motivations to
comply items, or how much influence the normative belief has on the parent's
- Attitude Toward the Behavior: 3 items that determine whether or
not the parent believes that encouraging their child to participate is the
- Subjective Norm: 1 item to determine the influence of the
social environment on a parent's intentions; and
- Behavioral Intention: 1 item to determine the parent's
intention to encourage his/her child to participate.
The population in this research consisted of parents who
have children in grades K-3 attending schools in seven states located in the
American School Food Service Association's (ASFSA) Southeast Region.
Participating parents were required to be the parent who is primarily
responsible for meal preparation. Through each Department of Education in the
seven participating states, 15 elementary schools were recruited to participate
in the research. Schools used in this research had at least 50% of students
paying full price for their school lunch, served between 400-700 meals during
lunch, and had a computerized system for tracking student participation in the
The school foodservice director at each school followed guidelines
provided by the researchers for distributing, collecting, and returning the PSLS
instruments. The school foodservice directors delivered the PSLS instruments,
return envelopes, and student participation incentives to teachers for
distribution to students. Students took the PSLS instrument home and asked their
parent/caregiver who was primarily responsible for meal preparation in their
home to complete it. Parents enclosed the PSLS instrument in a return envelope
and gave it back to their child to return to the teacher. Each student who
brought back the PSLS instrument received an incentive. The school foodservice
director collected all the PSLS instruments and mailed them back to the
In accordance with the TRA guidelines, the researchers recoded the
items in the PSLS instrument that measured behavioral beliefs, outcome
evaluation, normative beliefs, attitude toward the behavior and subjective norm
to score strongly disagree= -3 to strongly agree= 3. Recoding was done only for
the analysis of the TRA constructs. Items measuring motivation to comply were
not recoded. Established guidelines set forth by Ajzen and Fishbein (1980) were
used in the measurement of all TRA constructs within the TRA model.
Each parent who completed the PSLS and provided signed permission
to obtain data on his/her child's NSLP participation was matched with his/her
child. Information on NSLP participation of each child was obtained for a 30-day
period (20 school lunch meals) from school lunch records provided by the school
foodservice director at each school. This information on participation was
obtained beginning one week after parents completed the PSLS. The three
demographic variables on the children--grade, gender, and number of children in
his/her family--were obtained from parent responses on the PSLS.
Pearson's correlation analyses were used to determine the strength
of association between the measurement of parents' behavioral intentions and
their children's participation in the NSLP. Confirmatory factor analyses were
conducted to determine whether the items in the PSLS reproduced the appropriate
underlying dimensions of parents' beliefs. Separate factor analyses were
performed using items representing the two components--behavioral beliefs and
outcome evaluation--included in the behavioral beliefs construct. Frequencies
were used on all belief items to obtain agreement results.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Using confirmatory factor analyses, the behavioral belief's
component resulted in a GFI (Goodness of Fit Index) of 0.91, and a RMR (Root
Mean of the Residual) of 0.11. For the outcome evaluation component, a GFI of
0.92 and a RMR of 0.06 were obtained. These represent minimally acceptable
standards for confirmatory factory analysis (Quintana & Maxwell, 1999).
Factor analyses were conducted to determine if parents' ratings for the
behavioral beliefs and outcome evaluation items could be grouped into a smaller
number of meaningful factors. The identified factors and their respective
Cronbach alphas are shown in Table 1 and Table 2.
PSLS items loading at less than 0.40 were deleted from use in data
analyses, which resulted in a reduction from 57 to 41 of the number of items
that were used to measure the five TRA constructs. Factor analyses were not
conducted with the normative beliefs--attitude toward the behavior, subjective
norm, and behavioral intention constructs--due to the limited number of items in
each of these constructs.
The subjective norm and normative beliefs (significant others'
beliefs) (Table 3) showed very little influence on parents' intentions to
encourage or not encourage their children to participate in the NSLP. Therefore,
this discussion relates primarily to behavioral beliefs that did result
in a strong correlation with parents' intentions to encourage their children to
participate in the NSLP.
Parents in 14 of the 15 (93%) elementary schools returned the PSLS
(n=1,039). Ninety-two percent of the parents provided permission to obtain
information on their children's NSLP participation (n=960). The demographic
distribution of the children and their respective grades and genders were as
follows: 207 kindergarteners, 259 1st-graders, 263 2nd-graders, 231 3rd-graders,
461 females, and 499 males. The majority of parents (95%) identified themselves
as having one to three children attending K-12 schools.
Chi-square analyses showed no significant differences in NSLP
participation based on gender or grade. Barnes (1988) reported that male
students tend to participate more often in the NSLP than female students (4.1
days per week and 3.8 days per week, respectively).
The average participation rate of 72% found in this research is
slightly lower than the 80% participation rate for elementary schools and 88%
participation rate for Grades 1-3 as reported by Barnes (1988). Montague (1998)
reported a decline in participation rates among paying students. Since our
research was conducted in schools with a high percentage of paying students, the
lower participation rate in the elementary schools may be indicative of a
decrease in participation of paying students. This research did show a
significant difference in the number of children in the family reported by
parents and their intentions to encourage NSLP participation. Parents with fewer
than four children had a higher intention to encourage their children to
participate than did parents with more than four children. However, it should be
noted that the group of parents with over four children was only a small
percentage of the sample (less than 2%). A study with a larger sample of this
group should be conducted before drawing any conclusions. Maurer (1984) reported
students with the highest participation rates were from families with seven or
The researchers were able, however, to draw conclusions about
parents' intentions, discovering that 79% of parents "intended to encourage
their child to participate in school lunch." Parents' intentions to encourage
their child to participate in the NSLP were shown to have a strong correlation
(r=0.58, p<0.01) with their child's actual participation. Parents' attitudes
toward the NSLP were generally positive, with 79% agreeing that having their
child participate is good and 72% agreeing it is wise. Only 5% agreed that
school lunch might be harmful.
PSLS items addressing parents' beliefs and the importance they
place on the belief are found in Table 4. According to the TRA, beliefs
and the importance placed on those beliefs influences a person's intentions to
act on them. Therefore, parents' intentions to either encourage or discourage
their children to participate in the NSLP depend on how strongly they feel about
the NSLP. Items with considerable discrepancy between parents' agreement with
the belief and agreement with the importance of the belief should be viewed as
potential areas school foodservice directors should address when making changes
to their NSLP.
In this research, parents agreed (90%) with the belief that their
child will receive a nutritious lunch if they participate in the NSLP and agreed
(98%) that it is important to them that their child receives nutritious lunches.
Parents also believed (89%) that their child will receive healthful foods if
he/she participates in the NSLP, and that their child receiving healthful foods
was important to them (97%). These are areas where the school lunch program is
concurring with parents' beliefs that would lead to their intentions to
encourage their child to participate in the NSLP.
However, this research found considerable discrepancies between
several of the beliefs and the importance placed on the beliefs by parents. Only
31% of parents agreed with the belief that they know how much their child eats
if he/she participates in the NSLP. However, 81% of parents agreed that knowing
how much their child eats is important. Seldom, if at all, do school lunch
programs document children's individual nutritional intake during the lunch meal
and report that information to parents. Documentation of individual nutrition
intake may be impractical under the current school lunch environment, but is an
area to begin exploring as a way to improve the value of the school lunch as
perceived by parents.
In addition, 64% of parents agreed with the belief that their
child has adequate time to eat his/her lunch if he/she participates in the
school lunch program. However, most parents (93%) agreed that their child having
adequate time to eat is important. Having adequate time to eat lunch by
providing shorter service lines or longer lunch periods has been shown to be a
positive influence on school lunch participation (Brown, Gilmore, & Dana,
1997; Hutchinson, Brown, & Gilmore, 1998; Marples & Spillman, 1995).
Schools need to address the issue of students having adequate time to eat lunch
if they are to improve service as perceived by parents. Bergman, Buergel,
Enamuthu, and Sanchez (2000) provide research information and suggestions for
increasing the amount of time students have to eat by improving the efficiency
of school lunch service.
Another problem area identified by this research was the taste of
the lunch. Only 56% of parents agreed with the belief that if their child
participates in the NSLP they will receive a lunch that tastes better than a
sack lunch brought from home. Ninety-six percent of parents believed if their
child participates in the NSLP it is important that the lunch taste better than
a sack lunch. This indicates that parents believed they can provide a lunch that
tastes better to their child than school lunch. Providing students with foods
that they like and that meet the federal regulations is always a challenge for
school foodservice directors. Involving students and parents in menu development
may provide children with more foods that they like, therefore promoting
Maurer (1984) stated that parents reported convenience as a
benefit of the school lunch program, but did not identify the importance of that
benefit to parents. In this research, parents' agree (79%) with the belief that
they save time and it is convenient (79%) for them if their child participates
in the NSLP. Interestingly, only 50% and 51%, respectively, agree that saving
time and convenience are important to them. When promoting the school lunch
program to parents, promoting convenience in terms of saving time may not be a
successful strategy, since parents already agree that school lunch does save
them time, but they do not place high importance on this convenience.
Since this research found a positive correlation with parents'
intentions to encourage their children to participate in the NSLP and their
children's actual participation, at least in K-3, school foodservice directors
are encouraged to view parents as significant customers of their school lunch
program. Understanding parents' beliefs and the importance placed on those
beliefs as related to the NSLP will provide school foodservice directors some
guidance as to changes that are needed to improve parents' beliefs toward their
school lunch program.
As more beliefs that guide parents' intentions to encourage their
children's participation in the NSLP are identified, marketing strategies using
persuasive messages in support of the NSLP can be developed. Belief-based
persuasive messages have been successful when used in other populations, such as
promoting enrollment in high school chemistry classes (Crawley & Koballa,
1994) and the career choices of college students (Strader & Katz, 1990).
School foodservice programs can target parents using persuasive messages as a
way to positively reinforce favorable beliefs, or perhaps even change negative
beliefs and encourage participation in the NSLP.
Based on this research, the following areas should be addressed in developing
- Nutritional content of the school lunches and how students'
preferences are incorporated into the menus.
- Eating environment and the time allowed for children to receive
and consume a hot lunch.
- Assurance that when students participate in the NSLP, they are
given healthy foods that they like.
At least for elementary schoolchildren, parents should be
recognized as influential customers of the NSLP. This research shows the need to
include and view parents as an important factor in NSLP participation. Other
studies have identified the importance of including parents in school programs.
Gantner (1997) identified parents as the primary customers of the school system
and found they were more likely to support school decisions when they had a
voice in those decisions. Pryor (1996) reported that parent involvement could
assist in identifying strengths and needs of school programs that, in turn,
could lead to improved effectiveness of the various school programs. Future
research efforts toward increasing NSLP participation in the elementary school
population should be directed toward assessing parents' needs and input
concerning the school lunch program.
Due to criteria established for this research, generalizations are
limited. Therefore, caution should be used when extrapolating the results of
this research to parents and children who do not meet the same criteria. Due to
confidentiality and legal considerations, the researchers chose not to place
items on the PSLS instrument asking parents to identify their children's
eligibility status for free and reduced-price meals. Eligibility status has been
identified by previous research as a strong influencing factor on participation
(Fogleman, et al., 1992; Gleason, 1995; Zucchino & Ranney, 1990), and the
researchers believe that the addition of items to the PSLS survey regarding
status would not provide any new information. The researchers do recognize that
this may be considered as a limitation of the research.
The authors thank ASFSA's Child Nutrition Foundation for partial funding of
this research through the Lincoln Foodservice Grant for Innovations in School
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Laurel G. Lambert is assistant professor, School of
Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID. Martha T.
Conklin is associate professor, School of Hotel, Restaurant and Recreation
Management, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. J.T.
Johnson is director, Center for Research Support, The University of Southern
Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS.