Top 3 Ways to Improve Learning in Schools…Using School Lunches

As we all know, nutrition and educational performance are related. And with one third of the U.S.’s 300 million residents obese, it is more important now than it has ever been to focus on how healthy the available meal options are for students. While it may seem far-fetched that food may have such a dramatic impact on our students, the truth is that a well-nourished student is able to think more clearly and focus better.

Here are three ways to improve learning in schools with a simple tool: school meals and other food-based initiatives.

1. Free and reduced school lunch programs. Free school breakfast and lunch programs are often credited with higher levels of student achievement in the schools where they exist. Non-profit children’s hunger programs intended to feed at-risk students on the weekends are sprouting up all across the country. There is a connection between what a child eats and how that child performs academically.

2. Healthier school lunches. It is well known that First Lady Michelle Obama is passionate about school lunch nutrition standards. In fact, she says that she is willing to “fight to the bitter end” to ensure that the school lunch nutrition standards she helped draft stay in place — despite a Republican-drafted bill that would allow some school exemption. The First Lady lobbied for higher nutrition standards that went into effect in 2012 that called for more vegetables, fruits and whole grains in school meals, along with less fat, sugar and sodium. Over 90 percent of public schools in the U.S. have subscribed to the standards since their enactment.

The First Lady’s standards have received some pushback from the industry-backed School Nutrition Association, which says that fewer lunches are being sold because children do not want to buy the healthier lunches. Furthermore, a House of Representatives bill authored by Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt would give school districts the opportunity to skip the nutrition requirements for one year. According to Aderholt, the change came on too quickly and that schools need time to adjust.

Unhappy teens have also protested against these standards, going onto Twitter to complain. Photos of unappetizing school fare in cafeteria Styrofoam trays have flooded Twitter since the hashtag was born as many teens are declaring that they would rather go hungry (or that they have gone hungry) than eat the “healthy” lunch options offered at their schools.

Despite the growing pains many schools are going through with the new nutritional standards, this is still an important initiative for students and their well-being.

3. Holistic food movements. This is perhaps the most interesting method of getting students what they need in terms of nutrition. An understanding of food and its role in lifelong physical and psychological health is also important because it addresses more than the immediate. Quality of life and longevity are impacted by food lifestyle and healthy eating habits that are formed early in life. In a culture where children grow up with a skewed concept of where food originates, some schools are now stepping in to provide guidance with student-led gardening programs.

The School Garden Project of Lane County, Oregon, for example, boasts 30 gardens at K-12 schools in five districts. Over 800 students are taught to “create, sustain and use onsite gardens” every year.” By simply showing the basics of food growing, students have an informed approach to eating without an official lesson in “healthy eating.” For many K-12 students, working in a school garden is the first time they are making a real-life connection between the items they see in the grocery store and their original location.

The Center for Nutrition in Schools at UC Davis found that garden-based learning does more than just improve nutrition knowledge. Students who participate in garden programs on school grounds have higher overall academic achievement and experience elevated self-esteem and social skills.

It’s clear that food makes a difference in the quality of education, sometimes even in the most unexpected ways. I hope that food-based initiatives are given some attention as we look for improvements we can make to our K-12 education system.

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