Cafeteria Conundrum: Can school lunches be nutritious, delicious, and affordable?

Cafeteria Conundrum: Can school lunches be nutritious, delicious, and affordable?

High school students use the power of math to deliver viable solutions for school districts

March 10, 2014

Philadelphia, PA -- More than 5,000 high school students from across the country dedicated this past weekend to solving the problem of funding nutritious school lunches that are tasty enough for kids to eat. Participants of Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge used mathematically-founded insights to address concerns posed by government officials, school districts, and students. Close to 1,200 solutions were submitted for judging, which begins today.

This year's competition topic stems from concerns surrounding childhood nutrition and obesity, which have been in the spotlight since First Lady Michelle Obama announced her health and wellness platform for children and spearheaded passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandates healthy choices in school lunches. Just last month, the first lady joined U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce guidelines for school wellness policies. As with any new program, school districts have concerns, such as budgetary limitations and declining revenue from food services due to lack of food appeal.

That's what inspired Dr. Joseph Skufca, associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and a longtime judge of the contest, to develop this year's M3 Challenge problem. The question, "Lunch Crunch: Can nutritious be affordable and delicious?" was posed to high school students in the annual applied math modeling contest organized by the Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

"Last year, our small, local school system of about 1,400 students lost more than $60,000 during the first semester because students were purchasing fewer meals under the new school lunch program," Skufca said. "As a father, I also noticed that the taste of the new menu items was an issue for my children. As a mathematician, I saw that this was a situation where mathematics ought to be able to find a better solution. And who better to solve it than the true experts on this subject: kids?"

And what better platform to make that happen than the M3 Challenge, the annual online competition that presents students with a timely, real-world issue to which they can apply their mathematical prowess? Working in teams of 3-5, students from 45 states and Washington, D.C. were allotted 14 hours to create a mathematical model to determine a student's caloric requirements based on his or her individual attributes, such as the amount of physical activity and breakfast intake.

Participants were also asked to examine the effectiveness of the so-called "one-size-fits-all" mandate of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by determining the percentage of U.S. students who meet the definition of an "average" student and have their caloric needs met by program stipulations. In addition, participants developed a budget-friendly lunch plan to satisfy nutritional standards and students' palates. Solutions were presented in the form of a report to the USDA.

"Math models can certainly improve the economics of the school lunch program, but if the goal is to build life-long healthy eating habits, then we need to understand what makes the lunch experience enjoyable," Skufca said. "When we develop mathematical models of real world situations, we often face the challenge of needing to quantify and measure intangibles, such as ‘appeal' or ‘satisfaction'. Learning to overcome these creative challenges allows for significantly broader opportunities to apply mathematics to improve our world."

Six finalist teams, which will be announced April 7, will present their solutions to a panel of judges in New York City on April 28. Winning teams will be awarded shares of $125,000 by The Moody's Foundation.

About the sponsor

The Moody's Foundation, a charitable foundation established by Moody's Corporation, is committed to supporting education, in particular the study of mathematics, finance and economics. The Foundation also funds specific initiatives in the areas of global economic development, microfinance, civic, health and human services as well as arts and cultural programs. The Foundation supports programs located in select metropolitan areas in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world.

Moody's is an essential component of the global capital markets, providing credit ratings, research, tools and analysis that contribute to transparent and integrated financial markets. Moody's Corporation (NYSE: MCO) is the parent company of Moody's Investors Service, which provides credit ratings and research covering debt instruments and securities, and Moody's Analytics, which offers leading-edge software, advisory services and research for credit and economic analysis and financial risk management. The Corporation, which reported revenue of $3.0 billion in 2013, employs approximately 8,400 people worldwide and maintains a presence in 31 countries. Further information is available at

About the organizer

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an international society of over 14,000 individual members, including applied and computational mathematicians and computer scientists, as well as other scientists and engineers. Members from 85 countries are researchers, educators, students, and practitioners in industry, government, laboratories, and academia. The Society, which also includes nearly 500 academic and corporate institutional members, serves and advances the disciplines of applied mathematics and computational science by publishing a variety of books and prestigious peer-reviewed research journals, by conducting conferences, and by hosting activity groups in various areas of mathematics. SIAM provides many opportunities for students including regional sections and student chapters. Further information is available at

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