12/17/2012 09:39 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Starting a Global Conversation About School Lunch

Yummmm....tasty Turkey Tettrazzini soaked in brownish gunk. How can anyone forget high-school lunch? Have things changed for the better over the 24 years since I graduated high-school? And given all the fights currently going on in the United States over what our kids eat at school -- in Congress no less -- is it any better for students in other Western democracies?

So, in a study exclusively for the Huffington Post, my data research firm, The RIWI Corporation, set out to find out exactly how public high school lunches compared in six countries where HuffPost has sites: U.S., UK, Canada, France, Spain, and Italy. More important, we wanted to find out what the students thought of their food: taste-wise and health-wise.

Our research surveyed 9,532 students with close memories of high school lunch (with a disproportionate focus on high school kids and recent high school grads), equally divided between male and female. The resulting HuffPost High School Lunch Index is the first global survey of its kind on this topic.

Most interesting to me in our findings is the lack of any statistical correlation between how horrible our respondents consider high school lunches and how tasty these same respondents feel those lunches to be. One conclusion from these data is that high-school lunch is not something current students or recent students or adults reflect on fondly, and this fact varies only slightly among countries. Below are some important high-level findings and methodological issues, but, first, let's explore the question: Why, when you match individual respondent results -- as one needs to do in many statistical tests -- is there no correlation between perceptions of healthfulness of a high-school lunch and perceptions of tastiness?

To help me figure this out, I asked one of the leading global authorities on obesity, Dr. Arya Sharma, Professor of Medicine and Chair in Obesity Research and Management at the University of Alberta. He was not surprised at all by the findings. His response is as follows:

"If you could just make healthy food taste better, cost less and be more convenient, that's what everyone would be eating. People decide what to eat based on taste cost and convenience. Making healthy food taste good takes cooking skills -- it is simply hard to trump the taste of fat, sugar, and salt (and the crispy crunchiness of anything deep fried). Healthy fresh ingredients are expensive. Nothing is more convenient than grabbing a sandwich or hamburger on the run. Healthy eating requires more time (shopping, cleaning, cooking, chewing) and more money (which we have but don't want to spend on food). [This] comes down to culture and values -- sprinkle in some evolutionary biology and bingo -- you get exactly what we have now."

So: Is the generation of high-schoolers a lost cause when it comes to the obesity crisis? Just starting a global conversation will help us start finding global solutions to what is one of the greatest health issues facing the planet. U.S. politicians and school dietitians can learn a lot from what their counterparts in other democracies are doing to combat unhealthy eating amongst kids -- and vice versa.

Here are the key findings from the High School Lunch Index:

In the United States, on both tastiness and healthfulness, respondents said high-school lunches were terrible (25%, in terms of healthfulness, said the lunches were 'terrible'; 27%, in terms of tastiness, said the lunches were 'terrible'). Yikes!

In Canada, on both tastiness and healthfulness, things look somewhat sunnier. Only 17% said high-school lunches were terrible in terms of health; 16% said they tasted terrible. Putting this in perspective, however, I'm not sure how well I'd consider my class where 16-17% received an F grade.

Italy, on both tastiness and healthfulness, appears very similar to Canada: 19% said high-school lunches were terrible in terms of health; 17% said they tasted terrible.

France, on both tastiness and healthfulness, appears stuck around this same plateau; 16% consider the food terrible on health. The same proportion of respondents (16%), consider the taste to be terrible.

Spain, on both tastiness and healthfulness, is similar: 16% see the food as terrible in health; 15% (the lowest!) rank the lunches as terrible on taste.

Great Britain, despite the huge media and celebrity-chef (hello Jamie Oliver!) attention paid to improving the healthfulness high school lunches, is far closer to the United States than to Canada and to our other countries surveyed: 21% see UK high school lunch fare as terrible in healthfulness; 24% rank the lunches terrible on taste.

In the United States, there are of course some variations by region:

Midwest: The average healthfulness score is -0.61 and tastiness score of high school lunches is -0.66. A total of 2 is the highest possible score (see scoring process below).

Northeast: The average healthfulness score is -0.39 and tastiness score of high school lunches is -0.43.

South: The average healthfulness score is -0.51 and tastiness score of high school lunches is -0.59.

West: The average healthfulness score is -0.38 and tastiness score of high school lunches is -0.37.

Scores for each of the above U.S. Census areas were calculated based on the average scores of respondents in the states included in each area. A respondent's score of terrible = -2; bad = -1; ok = 0; good = 1; excellent = 2.

So in short, it looks like none of these countries are providing popular, healthy lunches -- at least from a students' viewpoint.

Let's talk.

School Lunches Around The World

Notes on The RIWI Corporation's Data Capture Methodology:

In all six countries, all findings are reflective of the Internet population in each country +/- 2.5%, 19 times out of 20. These data - almost 10,000 respondents from a total of six countries (United States, Canada, the UK, Spain, Italy and France) -- were powered by the RIWI Corporation, a private company based on my original patents and academic work in government-commissioned pandemic surveillance and vaccine safety surveillance work around the world. RIWI [=Real-Time-Interactive-Worldwide-Intelligence] is being recognized as an evolving leader in 'smart data': a unique, peer-reviewed and patented approach to gathering customer insights in every region of the world 24/7. In RIWI's latest publication, "Smarter Data: Eliciting Insights from the Cloud", in conjunction with Asia's finance giant, CLSA, expert CLSA technology and software analyst Ed McGuire points out in the forward that "RIWI's unique and proprietary approach paves the way for heretofore unattainable insights into customer preferences and behaviour."

Response Rates per Country*

United States: 80.8% [53% female; 47% male]
Spain: 59.4% [41% female; 59% male]
Italy: 58.4% [39% female; 61% male]
France: 70.5% [44% female; 56% male]
United Kingdom: 75.7% [48% female; 52% male]
Canada: 72.3% [48% female; 52% male]

*Response rates are calculated based on the percentage of exposed, un-incented Internet respondents to the series of questions who answered any question of value (e.g. age), and also answered all questions.

Links to the RIWI Corporation's global data capture methodology -- which does not use pre-recruited, incented 'panellists'; does not sift 'insights' from what people write on the Internet; and which does not capture so-called "Big Data"; are here and here. In a nutshell, RIWI's patented, peer-reviewed methodology enables RIWI, in a privacy-compliant manner, to capture a non-incented representative group of Internet users in 193 countries, relative to the frequency of Internet usage in any given population. The RIWI Corporation's patent claims and software also give RIWI the capacity to geo-locate down to a sub-city level.