As the U.S. Senate considers whether to vote before the August recess on a child nutrition bill that would improve public school children’s access to nutritious food, evidence is mounting that the quality of food served at schools can have a direct effect, not only on young students’ physical health, but also on children’s behavior and academic performance in the classroom.
Parents and public health officials concerned about rising rates of childhood obesity and childhood diabetes have for years advocated for replacing traditional American school cafeteria fare like pizza, corn dogs and French fries with healthier, fresher, less processed options including fresh produce and whole grains. But one school in Appleton, Wisc., has found that changing kids’ diets not only improves their health — it improves their test scores.
In the 13 years since Appleton Central Alternative High School — an alternative public school specifically for children who have struggled to succeed in a typical school setting — embarked on a program to improve student nutrition by removing soda machines and replacing heavily processed, prepackaged lunches and snackes with fruits, vegetables, and fresh cooked whole foods, the school has seen dramatic changes in students’ behavior and academic performance.
Since the students began eating healthier lunches, test scores and grades have significantly improved across the school, far fewer students have been suspended or expelled, and behavioral issues decreased to such an extent that the school found it no longer needed to keep a police officer on campus to respond to out-of-control students.
And science is increasingly backing up the Appleton school’s findings. An Australian study published just this month linked childrens’ consumption of processed meats, preservatives, and artificial colors to increased risk of ADHD. That supports the conclusion of a British study from 2007, that found certain food dyes and preservatives can increase hyperactivity and distractibility in children. In March, an Oxford University study showed that schoolchildren in Britain who adopted chef and healthy food activist Jamie Oliver’s school meal program, scored higher on standardized tests and were absent fewer times than their peers who ate less nutritious school fare.
Yet, with school just around the corner for millions of American students, and despite all the evidence that healthier food in schools leads not only to healthier children, but better-behaved, better performing, easier to manage classrooms, the U.S. Senate has yet to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This modification and extension of previous child nutrition laws would improve national school nutrition standards, improve schools’ access to fresh, locally grown produce, and give school administrators the funding and guidance they need to transform cafeteria menus.
If you are concerned about the Senate’s inaction on legislation that could improve not only the health, but also the school success of children across the United States, please sign Care2′s petition urging Congress to update the U.S. child nutrition law.
Salad bar photo by Tudokin, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.