Please Hear Us: Students Weigh In on School Food

Please Hear Us: Students Weigh In on School Food

FROM: Nicole Bourdon | Springfield Food Policy Council School Nutrition Committee, Springfield, MA

TIME: 30 minutes per group; 1-6 months for the process

CATEGORIES: Classroom, Cafeteria, Community, Projects + Activities, Partnerships, Youth Leadership

Reality check! Focus group sessions with students (kindergarteners to high schoolers) lead to first-hand suggestions for improving school meals and give kids the power to change their meal program. 


  • 2 volunteers (school staff, parents or community members with background checks)
  • Discussion questions
  • Notetaker
  • Information synthesizer
  • Support from Food Service provider or department, school administration, and personnel at schools
  • Meeting time and space for focus groups


STEP 1: BUILD SUPPORT. Talk with the school administration, food service provider or department, and any other people who would need to support the project. Describe what you hope to do, why it’s important, and what kind of support you need. Ask what kind of information they would like to gather. Create a Memorandum of Understanding with the Food Service Provider or informally agree on the purpose of the process (for example: “Explore students’, parents’, and educators’ perceptions of school food; to celebrate successes; identify areas for improvement; and to report back findings to the school community.”

STEP 2: DEVELOP QUESTIONS. Draft an agenda for the focus groups, including an introduction and welcome, discussion questions and closing. Develop focus group questions that will work for each age group and that will get the information you hope to collect.

STEP 3: PLAN FOCUS GROUPS. Decide how students will be selected (a class, student council, volunteers, or other group) and work with teachers and administration to find a time slot and meeting space. Groups work best for 5-15 students of similar ages, and about 30-minute sessions. Find impartial volunteers to help run the focus group, take notes, and synthesize results. Be sure volunteers have background checks or appropriate security clearance. Finalize and share the focus group schedules with appropriate principals, teachers, school nurses and food service staff.

STEP 4: CONDUCT FOCUS GROUPS. Set up chairs ahead of time, and make sure volunteers are clear on responsibilities. Welcome students, conduct focus groups, and let them know what will happen with their feedback and results.

STEP 5. COMPILE RESULTS AND MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS. Compile the focus group results. Identify key themes and ideas from different groups. Make recommendations based on key themes and student suggestions. Meet with the food service provider/staff and other key stakeholders to share and discuss recommendations. Recognize their responses.

STEP 6. SHARE OUTCOMES. Report back to students, staff and other interested parties about the results of the focus group and recommendations. Celebrate changes that result!


  • Food service providers learn what students want and implement changes
  • Students are empowered to influence their school meal program
  • Improved school food leads to greater participation and less food waste
  • Decision-makers learn which changes can be made at individual schools and which need to happen at the district or regional scale
  • Students and food service programs improve communication and collaboration

In Springfield, this project led to numerous changes:

  • The food service provider now purchases and serves local carrots in the salad bar, switched to a softer rice, serves parfaits and yogurt more often, offers more themed meals, and allows middle and high school students to dress their own salads.
  • They are exploring additional recommendations, such as ethnic spices and additional food service worker training.
  • The district formed an ongoing Student Food Advisory Council.


You can do this project at the school level, district level, or other scale, so the overall number of focus groups and schools will vary. Involve parents too! Send parents a questionnaire or consider forming a Parent School Food Advisory Committee. Create an ongoing structure for students to weigh in on the food program, like Springfield’s Student Food Advisory Council or a simple suggestion board.

Header photo by Ben DeFlorio Photography

About Farm to School Recipes for Success

From garden parties to cooking contests, farm visits to STEM lessons, farm to school programs all over the Northeast are sizzling! The Farm to School Recipes for Success contest features the top ten best projects, activities, lessons and ideas chosen from dozens of “recipes” submitted by schools and programs in advance of the 2015 Farm to Institution Summit on April 7-9. This contest is sponsored by the Northeast Regional Steering Committee of the National Farm to School Network and is funded by a USDA Farm to School grant with support from the National Education Association. Visit to learn more.