The Fridge-in-the-Classroom Test
School lunches are getting healthier, with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, thanks in part to the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act and initiatives spearheaded by government and non-governmental organizations across the country. But what about snacks that parents send in with their kids? It’s often the same old unhealthy story.
Sean Cash discovered this at his own child’s school, where parents donate snacks to their children’s classrooms. “Typically, someone would go shopping at a food warehouse club and might buy an extra container or two of salty snacks,” said Cash, Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He wanted to find a way to improve the quality of those snack donations.
While chips and cookies can sit on a classroom shelf all week, fruits and veggies require more care. This led Cash to wonder if adding refrigerators to the classrooms might help. “The reason to think about refrigeration is that it’s at the classroom level, and it seemed like a relatively low-cost way of improving snack quality,” he said. He added that modest measures, like providing small refrigerators in classrooms, are more likely to be sustainable.
To test his idea, Cash and his research team randomly assigned fifteen classrooms in a Madison, Wisconsin, elementary school to receive mini-refrigerators for parent-donated snack storage. They asked teachers to record detailed notes about the snack donations received, and compared classrooms with and without refrigerators.
After ten weeks of data collection, the researchers found that the donations to refrigerator classrooms were healthier, on average. The majority of snacks donated in all classrooms still fell into the category of salty snacks and chips, but the classrooms with refrigerators received significantly more fruits, vegetables, and dairy snacks. Additionally, teachers reported that in classrooms with refrigerators students liked the produce and dairy snacks best.
Rebecca Boehm, N12, N17, the first author on the study published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, said that although the refrigerators had a modest impact on the nutritional quality of parent-donated snacks, small diet shifts in childhood can be important for the long term. “Eating habits get imprinted on children at a young age, and when people eat well during childhood, they’re more likely to have healthy life-long habits,” said Boehm, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy.
Future larger-scale studies on refrigeration in schools are needed, the researchers said, and should examine a longer period and track the snacks children eat the most, in addition to which are donated. “Future studies could also assess if refrigerators could be used to store foods sold a la carte in school cafeterias, since the vast majority of schools sell snacks this way,” said Boehm. “A la carte foods are regulated under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, but they tend to be shelf stable and not as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables.”
When asked if this would work in other schools, Cash pointed out that most schools don’t have a parent donation model in place. Socioeconomic factors like family income could also limit access to large quantities of healthy snack foods.
That said, while it’s impossible to fix child nutrition with any single intervention, the refrigerator study suggests that even small changes in our environments can subtly push us toward healthier choices.