SMART Schools, Chicago: Urban Food Policy Snapshot

by Cameron St. Germain

Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Program name: Healthy School Meals Realized Through Technology (SMART) Schools

Location: Chicago, UNO Charter School Network

Food policy category: Nutrition, Food Waste Prevention

Program goals:

  • Collect data on students’ food choices and plate waste during school meals
  • Provide students’ parents or guardians with information about the nutritional quality of their children’s meals, and how they can improve their children’s diets
  • Encourage teachers to incorporate healthy eating into their lesson plans
  • Reduce food waste

Program initiation

  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago partnered with the UNO Charter School Network to launch this pilot program in 2014
    • The first pilot test lasted 18 months, and used 30 sixth-grade students at UNO Rufino Tamayo Charter School as the participants
    • In 2015, the pilot expanded to include 60 sixth-grade students from UNO Octavio Paz Charter School

How it works

The Healthy SMART pilot program collected two key pieces of data: which foods students chose and how much of each food they actually consumed.

Cafeteria workers recorded which foods students chose. The workers would scan a student’s ID card and then use a touch screen to select the food items on the student’s tray. Researchers then recorded how much of each food was uneaten when the students were finished with their meals.

The researchers then put together weekly reports that summarized each student’s food choices, how much of each food they ate, and the nutrients that they consumed. These reports targeted the students’ caregivers, and they included advice to caregivers about how to encourage their children to consume healthier food both at home and at school.

The researchers also created monthly reports for teachers that summarized the food choices of an entire class. The goal of creating these reports was to facilitate classroom  educational activities on nutrition and health that would encourage students to make healthier food choices.

Progress to date

The pilot program wrapped up in the spring of 2015. The results were summarized for the school administration and the research team offered to help the school system sustain the program independently. However, this coincided with a complete reorganization of the UNO Charter School Network, and the program ultimately did not continue.

The pilot study of the Healthy SMART Schools program was published in a scientific journal, and the researchers are hopeful that other school systems would adopt a similar approach. They believe doing so would be relatively feasible and inexpensive.

Why the program is important

Rates of obesity and diabetes in children in the United States are higher than they have ever been. Many schools have tried intervention strategies to improve students’ diets, but there is evidence to suggest these strategies are unsuccessful.

For example, a study published in the BMJ compared elementary school students who received an anti-obesity intervention with those who did not. The researchers found that the only positive dietary effect the intervention had was a slight increase in vegetable consumption. Obese children in the intervention group actually consumed less fruit and more high-sugar foods, compared to obese children in the non-intervention group.

A 2008 systematic review of obesity intervention studies concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether diet-related interventions were effective in reducing obesity.

One possible reason that diet-related interventions have been unsuccessful is that they do not elicit enough participation from parents or guardians, who exert the biggest influence over what their children eat. The SMART school program aims to get parents and guardians more involved by sending home the weekly reports.

Another feature of the SMART program that is not present in many other interventions is assessing how much food students discard. This data can be used to develop menus with healthy items that students are more likely to eat.


A formal assessment of the pilot program, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, stated that the methods of data collection were highly accurate. According to the assessment, 54 percent of parents consistently received feedback reports. This is likely due to some children not consistently bringing the reports home to their parents, or parents not checking their child’s “Friday Folders” for the reports. Multimodal methods for delivering the reports may be more effective in future implementations of the program.

According to Dr. Brad Appelhans, this pilot program elicited more engagement from caregivers other school-based interventions to prevent childhood obesity. Overall, the program was well-received.

Although the goal of the pilot program is to reduce childhood obesity through better diet, the program also has the potential to reduce food waste. Data on how much food goes uneaten can be used to determine which healthy entreés are most popular and least likely to end up in the trash.

It should be noted that the pilot was funded by Hillshire Brands Co., a major producer of packaged meat. According to Dr. Bradley Appelhans, who conducted the pilot, Hillshire brands had no involvement in the study and there was really no potential for industry influence.

Learn more

Point of contact

Bradley M. Appelhans:

Similar practices

  • In 2010, the Ankeny Community School District in Iowa began a program that recorded students’ lunch choices and compared them against national nutrition guidelines, to ensure each student’s meal is nutritionally adequate.



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