Feeding Young Minds: The Importance of School Lunches

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Personal Health

Harding Senior High, a public school in St. Paul, Minn., has long been known as a 90-90-90 school: 90 percent of students are minorities, nearly 90 percent come from poor or struggling families and, until recently, 90 percent graduate (now about 80 percent) to go on to college or a career.

Impressive statistics, to be sure. But perhaps most amazing about this school is that it recognizes and acts on the critical contribution that adequate food and good nutrition make to academic success. Accordingly, it provides three balanced meals a day to all its students, some of whom might otherwise have little else to eat on school days.

For those who can’t get to school in time for early breakfast, a substitute meal is offered after first period, to be eaten during the second period. Every student can pick up dinner at the end of the school day, and those who play sports after school can take the dinner with them to practices and games.

To Jennifer Funkhauser, a French teacher at Harding and hands-on participant in the meal program, making sure the students are well fed is paramount to their ability to succeed academically. Ms. Funkhauser and the staff at Harding are well aware of the many studies showing that children who are hungry or malnourished have a hard time learning.

After she noticed that some youngsters were uncomfortable eating with hundreds of others in a large, noisy lunchroom, Ms. Funkhauser created a more private, quieter “lunch bunch” option for them.

The attitude and atmosphere at Harding are in stark contrast to the humiliating lunchroom experiences suffered by students at some schools, where youngsters are sometimes shamed in front of their classmates and their meals confiscated and dumped in the garbage when parents have an unpaid lunch bill.

A recent article in The New York Times pointed out this appalling practice. My Jewish friends and I called “a shanda,” which is Yiddish for a scandal, a disgrace, an embarrassment.

But current problems with school lunch go far beyond shaming innocent children. After major improvements championed by the Obama administration in the nutritional value of school meals were already underway, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and now the Trump administration have begun to undermine them.

In 2010, spurred by the advocacy of Michelle Obama, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, revamping the nation’s school lunch program to increase servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, provide age-appropriate calories, remove dangerous trans fats and limit levels of sodium. Schools were given incentives in the form of meal reimbursement funds to prompt them to participate.

Alas, in the fiscal-year 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill, the House included waivers allowing schools that had a six-month net loss of revenue for any reason to opt out of providing the healthier meals outlined in the 2010 act, Dr. Jennifer Woo Baidal, a pediatrician affiliated with Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Now, just days into his tenure as Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, rolled back the timetable by at least three years for reducing the high levels of salt in school lunches. The rollback will also allow schools to serve refined grains and 1-percent fat flavored milk, instead of nonfat. Will progress on vegetables and fruits, calories and other fats be next on the chopping block?

Providing adequate amounts of nutritious food in schools is more important than many realize. “Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information,” Sean Patrick Corcoran, associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, told The Atlantic.

In fact, well-designed studies have demonstrated that “students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher” on statewide achievement tests, Michael L. Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues reported in April. They showed a 4-percentile improvement in test scores above those achieved in schools with less healthy meals.

“While this effect is modest in magnitude, the relatively low cost of healthy vendors when compared to in-house meal preparation makes this a very cost-effective way to raise test scores,” the researchers concluded.

In Minnesota, where 10 percent of households are considered “food insecure” and one child in six risks hunger, Wilder Research reported in 2014 that improved school nutrition is a “major component of Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program.” The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, in St. Paul, described studies showing that simply providing free breakfast can result in better school attendance, improved behavior and concentration and better academic performance.

Clearly, an expansive food program at schools like Harding Senior High bears replication nationwide, not cutbacks.

“Nutrition can affect learning through three channels: physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity),” the Berkeley team wrote. For example, they explained, diets high in trans and saturated fats have a negative impact on learning and memory, reducing substances in the body that support cognitive processing and increasing the risk of neurological dysfunction.

Schools have complained that children don’t like the healthier meals and are more likely to throw the food away. However, an analysis of three large studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that under the improved nutrition rules, food waste actually declined in 12 Connecticut schools; children consumed more fruits and vegetables in eight elementary schools in southeast Texas; and in four elementary schools studied by the Harvard School of Public Health, children ate more of their entree and vegetable servings and more children took a serving of fruit.

A study conducted by Cornell University researchers at a New York high school in 2012 found that making healthier foods more convenient for students increased their sale by 18 percent and decreased the grams of unhealthy foods consumed by nearly 28 percent.

An earlier Cornell study found that simply moving the salad bar from a corner of the lunchroom to the center increased the sales and consumption of this healthier fare. Offering students a choice between two vegetable options and having them pay cash for unhealthy items like desserts and soft drinks, the findings suggested, may enhance consumption of healthier foods without reducing revenue or participation in school lunch programs. While the studies are not conclusive, they suggest that with a few simple steps, schools may have an impact on the foods students eat.