Undergrad’s Thesis Looks to Evaluate RCSD’s School Meal Program

Univ. Communications – Dan Cohn’s honors thesis is going to help change lunchtime around Rochester city schools.  Cohn, a senior majoring in health, behavior, and society, was invited to the honors program this summer and accepted because he wanted to give back to the community.  His interests in childhood obesity and community organizing led him to the Healthi Kids Coalition, a part of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, and the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Community Health.  It was here that he developed the aim of his honor’s thesis, “to evaluate the new school meal program in Rochester City School District” implemented in 2009.

“Elementary school students worked with faculty, staff, parents, and Healthi Kids to implement the “Lunch is Gross” campaign,” explained Cohn.  The campaign, which launched in 2007, involved writing letters, petitions, and finally students appearing before the Board of Education to discuss the poor quality of lunchroom food in Rochester city schools.  This campaign “facilitated the school board shifting nearly $2 million toward new school food.”

Using research, Healthi Kids established 13 criteria for healthy meals and began a search for a new food management service.  This position was taken by ARAMARK in 2009.  “Since ARAMARK has entered the system, no formal evaluation has been executed,” according to Cohn, an issue his honor’s thesis aims to correct.

Cohn, working with Healthi Kids, is serving, in his words, as a “neutral evaluatory body.”  His job is to evaluate how well Healthi Kids 13 criteria for healthy meals are being kept and how this impacts the staff, faculty, and students.

Cohn is providing his evaluation based upon 3 main criteria.  The first is multiplicity, support, and context which gauges socially, culturally, and physically what choices students are making regarding food.  The second is accountability, which examines how the choices are perceived.  Lastly is satisfaction, which looks at how happy individuals are with both the food as well as the programs surrounding the food.

The data for these evaluations will be done primarily through qualitative not quantitative analysis.  Cohn begins his field research next Friday, November 18th, by conducting interviews with staff and students, participation in lunchroom activities such as eating with the children, observing how the food is prepared, and even looking into garbage cans to see what kids are throwing away.

“My work will be complete by March, at which point my data and analysis will be presented to the Board of Education,” said Cohn.  “By April, the recommendations I submit to the school board will be deliberated and by May will be voted on if necessary to implement for next school year.”

Working with his adviser, Nancy Chin, an associate professor of Community and  Preventive Medicine at the Medical Center, and Healthi Kids, Cohn’s evaluation will help make sure that Rochester city students are receiving both quality food and encouragement to make healthy life decisions regarding food.  This is important according to Cohn because, while the national childhood obesity rate is around 32 percent, Rochester lingers, considerably higher, around 40 percent.  A disturbing figure according to Cohn, who says current research shows that “80 percent of obese children stay so for their whole life.”

Article written by Daniel Baroff, a senior at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications.  He is majoring in religion with a minor in Jewish studies.  His main area of study is the involvement of Jews in the American comic book industry, for which he keeps an infrequently updated blog (http://theamazingspiderdan.wordpress.com).