Photo courtesy of Lindsey Behm

Marco Forster students work with UC Irvine researchers to earn grant funds to improve school lunches



By CUSD Insider staff

Something unusual has happened at Marco Forster Middle School.

Recently, the school received a special state grant to improve the health and efficacy of school lunches.

But the grant applicant wasn’t school or district administrators, it was the students themselves.

Marco Forster Middle School students led the charge that won the school a $14,500 grant to support their research to improve the school’s lunch program.

The process began in 2018, when Marco Forster established a relationship with the UC Irvine School of Education and its Orange County Educational Advancement Network (OCEAN), according to Jennifer Renick, an education Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine who works with Marco Forster and is supervised by UC Irvine’s Dr. June Ahn. The faculty advisor for the Marco Forster partnership is Dr. Stephanie Reich, also of UC Irvine.

The goal of the partnership was research that would benefit the school while also increasing student voices in campus decision making. What came about was a student “participatory action research team,” and the children wanted to focus on improving their school lunches.

“Rather than top-down research, the students would act as co-researchers alongside me,” Renick said.

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Behm

About 15 students, mostly from seventh grade, helped by cafeteria and district staff, participated in 2021. The students learned about the intricacies of the research process and collected data, considering factors like allergies, sustainability, and food waste when examining their meals. Results from the students’ data collection were used in the school’s grant application, with the students providing feedback on the grant’s budget and focus based on their preliminary findings.

Lindsey Behm, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Marco Forster and secondary teaching assistant principal, said the whole experience has really empowered the students.

“Getting this grant really proves to students that they are making a difference and being empowered, especially when we can say, ‘Look at the work we did last year. We came together to identify a problem, used data to suggest a solution, typed it up the report, and now we’re going to get our grant money.’ Their efforts fund and maintain the action group,” Behm said.

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Behm

While last year was about identifying what aspect of the school the students wanted to use research to improve, conducting their school lunch study, and using their results to apply for the grant, this year the money will help put the students’ ideas into action, including developing a partnership with the Ecology Center located near Marco Forster for field trips and educational programming. The funds will also help continue the growth of the research team through providing supplies for student researchers and covering the transportation costs to bring more students from UCI to campus as facilitators.

“The grant really gave us the platform to do all this,” Behm said.

The grant is a portion of $120,000 given by California Attorney General Rob Bonta through a partnership the San Juan Capistrano campus has with the UC Irvine School of Education and OCEAN. The grant funds stem from a 2017 settlement with Gatorade over the company’s misleading statements about water in a mobile video-game app that promoted the sports drink to teens and young adults, according to a state news release.

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