More Whole-Grain Awareness Needed in School Cafeterias

Originally written: June 2009
Updated: April 2018

A large reason for high and rising rates of child obesity is that children often consume unbalanced diets, packed with empty calories. One example of this is that children consume very few whole-grain products, especially with their school lunches, a fact that many in the nutritional and pediatric fields hope to change. Unfortunately, according to a recent study, those involved in student lunch programs, such as cafeteria workers and “food-service directors,” know little more about the benefits of whole-grain products than the fat children do.

Whole grains, as opposed to refined-grains (which keep only the endosperm), contain bran, germ and endosperm. Examples of whole-grain consumables include whole-grain breads, and other whole-grain flour based foods, popcorn, brown rice and rolled oats. White rice, white bread and most pastas, are examples of refined-grain foods. Regular consumption of whole-grains has been linked to increased insulin sensitivity, decreased risk for type 2 diabetes, lower LDL cholesterol levels and decreased cardiovascular disease risk.

Past research has estimated that American children consume approximately one serving of whole-grain foods per day, which is well below the recommended three servings. For the majority of a child’s year, one to two meals will be eaten in school cafeterias each day, giving school lunch programs a very important role in both keeping children healthy, and laying the foundations for future healthy eating habits. Despite this great responsibility, many school cafeteria foods are fatty, greasy, and lacking in essential nutrients, such as french fries and pizza.

Consuming these sorts of foods greatly increases risk for obesity in children, as well as the future development of diabetes and heart disease. In fact, type 2 diabetes incidence in teenagers and adolescents has been on a sharp rise as well, further suggesting that children are consuming very unhealthy diets.

The current studies objective was to uncover why so few whole-grain products are sold in school cafeterias, by questioning the food-service workers and directors themselves. While it was generally recognized that the word “whole-grain,” implied something healthy, few of the workers or directors had any idea what kinds of foods were actually whole-grain.

In addition to the general ignorance of those in the powerful position of controlling what school children eat, it was noted by some more knowledgeable directors that few food vendors sell whole-grain products, and those that do are significantly more expensive.

The problem is clearly multi-faceted, as distributors, directors and workers, alike, must become more knowledgeable about the foods that they are serving to children. Explains lead researcher, Dr. Len Marquart, “The goal is to remove confusion surrounding the definition of a whole-grain. This will require working together–enhanced communication among vendors, distributors and manufacturers along with key players in government, industry and school food service.”

Original Source: Marquart, Len. Mattern, Patty. Journal of Child Nutrition and Management news release. June 2009.

Update: Further research and initiatives have shown the importance of introducing more whole foods and diverse meals into school cafeterias. One 2015 publication stressed the importance of making school-meals more “family-style” and serving healthy foods including whole grains.


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