Whole Food, Whole Student

Nutrition-Kids

When I was a student teacher, the school I was assigned to had received a large chunk of cash as the result of scoring in the top ranks on a state assessment.  There was quite a bit of controversy happening in the school over which employees should receive bonuses as a result of this influx of cash.  The teachers, by and large, felt that they should be the sole recipients of the merit pay; after all, their jobs were the “front lines” positions, involving working directly with students on a variety of academic skills.

There was, however, a vocal opposition from the custodians, the lunchroom workers, and other support staff.  They argued that their roles in the school were contributing to a healthy school environment, which also had an impact on students’ success.  I’m inclined to agree with them, with one exception; the lunches.  Oh, how horrible these lunches were.  Without exception, every single school where I have worked, volunteered, collected data, or observed has served its students food that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole.

At the school I taught at in Los Angeles, for example, students routinely would get a styrofoam tray covered with a scoop of dubious looking ground beef, a bag of tortilla chips, some seriously gray looking green beans, and an apple or orange, along with either strawberry or chocolate milk.  Plain milk was available, but of course none of the students chose it when given an alternative.  I would watch each time a lunch like this was served.  The fruit almost always went in the trash, along with the beef and the green beans.  The students would instead eat the tortilla chips, and then walk over to the parent center to spend $1.00 to buy “nachos,” which consisted of more tortilla chips and some bright yellow “cheez” sauce.  It was nauseating.  The even worse part was that, for some kids, the food they got at school would be the only food they got all day.

Los Angeles, it seems (from perusing online menus), has made some strides in this area.  Perhaps the public shaming had something to do with it.  Steps are being taken in the right direction, at least, but we’re far from there.  We still have schools full of terrible food, and we can’t ignore this as a factor that affects student learning.  We know a few things about nutrition and learning.

1. Kids who eat breakfast tend to learn better.
2. When kids get proper nutrition and physical activity, behavior improves and trips to the nurse and counselor decrease.
3. Better nutrition and more physical activity may actually increase test scores.
4. In preschoolers, food insecurity is a contributing factor for being “developmentally at risk.”
5. A nutritionally poor diet may contribute to a decrease in IQ scores.  On the converse, a nutritionally rich diet may contribute to an increase in IQ scores.
6. Iron deficiency (generally resulting from a poor diet), can cause cognitive delays and lower math scores.
7. Malnourished children tend to have less energy and a harder time concentrating.

There has been a lot of focus lately on the problem of rampant obesity among young people in America.  Yes, this is clearly a problem.  However, I am concerned that we sometimes conflate average body weight with health.  It is completely possible (dare I even say common), for a young person to be at a normal body weight, but be undernourished.

We can’t just look at our students and say they’re healthy and getting proper nutrition.  They might be, as many of my students used to do, barely eating lunch and then walking after school to the corner store to buy a large bag of Hot Cheetos instead.

So what is a concerned society to do?  Granted, improvements have been made in school lunches, but getting rid of chocolate milk isn’t enough.  We need a comprehensive system of healthy, APPEALING school lunches (after all, the apple is no good if it just ends up in the trash), along with education for both students and parents on proper nutrition.  Many of the kids that are undernourished have no clue what a “whole” food is, and their parents also may have no idea that dry beans and rice are vastly healthier than a box of Hamburger Helper.  This, of course, would involve actually giving teachers enough time to teach health and wellness to their students, and funding dietitians to work IN SCHOOLS, not just to design district wide meal plans.

What has your experience been with school food?  Have you been in a school where this is working (students are eating healthy, school-provided meals)? Are these changes (to be enacted soon) enough?

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