Now Your Kid Can Get a Report Card on How She’s Doing in Lunch

Introducing the weekly email that details everything your child picked out in the cafeteria

Toby Talbot/AP Photo

Report cards are a fascinating window into what a school values. It's a given that students will get grades in the core academic subjects—reading, math, and so on—and that their absences and tardies will be recorded. But the extra skills that students are assessed for say a lot about the educational anxieties of the time and place. In the late 1800s, for example, the Los Angeles City Schools' report cards graded students in "sloyd": a form of woodworking that was supposed to prepare schoolchildren for an increasingly industrialized workforce. A Catholic school in Pennsylvania put "Christian Doctrine" at the top of its report cards for the 1916-17 school year—a clear sign of the school's primary mission.

Similarly the report-card "extras" of today reflect the concerns of the moment. A recent pilot program conducted by Cornell University researchers experimented with giving children "nutrition report cards." At a K-12 school district in rural New York state, 27 parents received weekly emails describing what their children selected at the school cafeteria.

Here's what one of these emails looks like:

The results of the program were written up in the October issue of PLOS ONE. The researchers found some evidence that students made healthier choices as a result of the report cards: Students purchased fewer cookies, for example, after the reports started going out. The study also found that the report cards encouraged parents to have conversations with their kids about nutrition. "Keeping track of what my children were purchasing at school was helpful in talking with them about making better choices about food," one of the parents in the study said.

The study's authors suspect that the report cards could have a positive effect even if those conversations never take place. "Even without any action on the part of parents," they write, "the [Nutrition Report Card] could positively influence food choice through the child’s perception that parents were observing those choices." This theory employs a sort of Santa Claus logic: Merely warning kids that someone "sees you when you're eating"—even if it's not true—is enough to modify behavior.

The nutrition report cards experiment is a response to one of the most challenging public-health problems of today: childhood obesity. Eighteen percent of children ages six to 19 are obese, a rate that's more than doubled in the past three decades. The push to track and monitor students' lunch choices reflects a real desire to find practical ways to encourage healthier eating.

But the apparent need for these reports also speaks to a more universal, timeless conundrum: Parents have trouble talking to their kids. Reading this study, my first thought was, "Isn't setting up a lunch-line surveillance system a little extreme? Wouldn't it be easier if parents just asked their children what they ate for lunch?" But then I remembered the tortured conversations at the dinner tables of my childhood. "What did you learn in school today?" my parents would ask. "Nothing," my brother and I would say. Conversations about lunch probably went similarly. Parents: "What did you have for lunch?" Kids: "I don't remember." The nutrition report cards could change that script a bit.