There's no understating the importance of proper nutrition for achieving optimum health, longevity, and peak brain performance. The issue of school nutrition is a big part of this. It's been studied, picked apart, analyzed, lauded, and condemned in places all over the world for various reasons.
In many respects, we seem to have made properly feeding our students into an unnecessarily complicated issue. The funny thing is that the truth is as simple and well-known as you can imagine. So what is this truth?
Hear this and hear it well: Better food builds better bodies and brains.
It's common sense, it's truth, and wisdom. It's a scientifically-verified fact that remains undisputed. Living Foods Lifestyle founder Ann Wigmore said this:
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”
She's absolutely right. I know firsthand.
My Own Story
When I was very young, my diet was every kid's dream and most parents' nightmare. My folks owned two fast-food restaurants in small-town Alberta. For a short time, we also ran a catering business out of our home. There was never any shortage of burgers, fries, pizza, and really rich food around. It was cheap and fast, and way too easy for parents working around the clock. Believe me when I say I paid the price for convenience.
Over time I grew up to be one well-rounded, underperforming, and very unhappy kid. My grades suffered and my moods were intolerable. I was brought up never understanding just how important proper diet and nutrition are to the brain as well as the body.
In the end, though, proper nourishment is a responsibility we have to ourselves, but also to others.
It must not be a luxury or a privilege for the chosen few. It's something that must be made readily available for all. This is especially true for our schools, where the young engineers and architects of our future spend much of their time.
Good school nutrition helps us be the best we can be in body and mind. It will do the same for our students if we find a way to make it happen.
Food heals us, energizes us, and brings us together through social and cultural bonds. "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," said Hippocrates. But enough soapboxing. Let's talk about our students.
School Nutrition: The Truth is on the Trays
When Farah Sheikh created her now-defunct blog called Fed Up focusing on school lunches, part of her purpose was to inspire thinking about school nutrition as a serious topic. Of course, this has been covered extensively in many photograph-ladden publications over the years. One of the most notable of these comes from the Huffington Post.
Sheikh stressed the direct affect that food intake has on student concentration and student performance, and she was correct to do so. Others are taking up the school nutrition torch and continuing to do their best to keep it burning in our minds. In the article Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Gabe Duverge mentioned a 2008 study performed by the Journal of School Health,focusing on fifth-graders.
The study revealed that students who consumed fast food lunches ended up with lower scores on standard literary assignments. The same was true with math and reading scores, it seems. Gabe went on to state the following:
"Nutritional deficiencies in zinc, B vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids and protein have been shown to affect the cognitive development of children. There is also evidence to suggest that diets with high amounts of trans and saturated fats can have a negative impact on cognition. This will harm the ability of students to learn at a pace necessary for school success."
This excerpt comes from the article How Nutrition Affects Your Brain, written by Monica Reinagel. She advises us to consider just how much of a nutritional power plant the brain really is:
"Of all the energy it takes to power your body’s many functions and activities, your brain sucks up about 20%. B vitamins and iron are critical for the cellular energy metabolism that keeps the lights on up there. In other words, healthy brain function and development require overall good nutrition. Conversely, serious nutrient deficiencies can definitely impair your cognitive abilities."
Another piece entitled 3 Ways Nutrition Influences Student Learning Potential and School Performance indicates that proper school nutrition improves students' cognitive brain function, as well as student behaviour. These and thousands of other studies and articles have all reached the same conclusions. So the notion of better school nutrition leading to better grades and scores isn't new to any of us. But how does it all work?
Nourishing the "Storm"
This informative Video features psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey talking about the "storm between our brains" and how it depends on a "food foundation" of proper nutrient intake.
Nutrients such as choline and DHA (an Omega 3 fatty acid) are essential to healthy brain development as we begin our lives as babies. As we continue to develop in adulthood, our brains continue to rely on such nutrients as vitamin C and tyrosine to maintain healthy neurotransmitter function.
Antioxidants are also essential to healthy brain function and various age-related deficiencies. There's also glucose, a big brain fuel source which we get from good carbs and other such foods.
A great source for a general understanding of the function of nutrition in brain performance can be found here. It uses very simple terms and covers a lot of area on nutrition and brain function.
A Good Start
One of the themes that reoccur if you dig into this topic of school nutrition is the matter of a good breakfast. It seems that making sure kids start the day off with the right mix of nutrients and hydration is a significant part of achieving exceptional classroom performance.
A 2005 study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates that a nutritionally-balanced breakfast either at home or at school promotes good academic performance. It also contributes to a healthy school environment. At the time, the study claimed that 10%–30% of kids in both Europe and the U.S. regularly skipped breakfast. This was dependent upon the age groups, and those numbers have likely fluctuated somewhat since then.
This excerpt comes from the study's abstract:
"Evidence suggests that breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function related to memory, test grades, and school attendance. Breakfast as part of a healthful diet and lifestyle can positively impact children's health and well-being ... We advocate consumption of a healthful breakfast on a daily basis consisting of a variety of foods, especially high-fiber and nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits, and dairy products."
The breakfast habit satisfies short- and long-term blood sugar requirements, and this directly relates to the cognitive abilities most needed for schoolwork. These include better recall and short/long-term memory, problem-solving, and concentration skills.
How Good Nutrition Serves the Student Brain
Proper school nutrition isn't a short-term goal of better grades and paying attention in class. It's about encouraging kids in adopting and living a healthy lifestyle and mindset. The biggest benefits to nourishing the bodies and the brains of our students for life are as follows:
- Improved alertness
- Quicker reaction time (cognitive processing)
- Better short- and long-term memory
- Improved concentration
- Significant decrease in age-related cognitive degeneration
- Mood stability
- A heightened overall sense of well-being
- Higher energy levels
- Improved nutrient absorption
- Better functioning of internal organs
One of the best things we can do in our schools and homes is to educate our children on the reasons for eating healthy and taking care of our bodies and brains as we go through life.
Our students deserve to know more than the fact that "it's just important." They need to discover the whys and the hows of getting good nutrition in a way that's relevant to them. They must know the good as well as the bad and learn about how both good and poor nutrition habits affect them over time.
School Nutrition Resources
How do we make a change? How can we continue to educate ourselves and our students on the importance of proper school nutrition, and give our best food planning efforts to our kids? There are tons of resources out there to explore. These are some of the ones that truly stand out.
- CDC: The Centre for Disease Control offers a list of guidelines for school nutrition and lots of general information on this and other health-related subjects.
- Kid's Health: Facts, guides, articles, recipes, troubleshooting tips, and more—all on helping students eat right.
- The Department of Health (Australia): This resource features solid guidelines for healthy school canteens and how to make them happen.
- HSC: The Healthy Schools Campaign, another treasure trove of information and direction for healthy school eating.
- Edutopia's 5-Minute Film Festival: These gems form Edutopia are always informative, and this one on building better school lunches is no exception.
- IDEO: A remarkable Web journey through the process of revamping the San Francisco School District's entire lunch program. An inspiring and creative must-see!
- USDA: A wealth of knowledge and resources for student nutritional awareness and education.