Nutrition and Schools: Guidelines, What Works and Inspired Ideas in Action

By McClure, Carla Thomas | District Administration, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Nutrition and Schools: Guidelines, What Works and Inspired Ideas in Action


McClure, Carla Thomas, District Administration


ACCORDING TO THE CENTERS for Disease Control and Prevention, most children and adolescents in the United States eat too much sugar, fat, and salt, but not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Further, they consume about half their "empty calories" in the form of soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza and whole milk (CDC, 2013).

New USDA Guidelines

To help schools counter this unhealthy trend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued new standards for school meals in 2012 under the Healthy HungerFree Kids Act of 2010. New standards also have been drafted for "competitive" foods and beverages--items sold at school during the school day, or offered a la carte in the cafeteria.

The new USDA guidelines incorporate the latest nutrition research and acknowledge the important role schools play in improving childhood nutrition, especially now that more children than ever are enrolled in school meal programs (USDA, 2013).

In a statewide California survey, 91 percent of parents and 82 percent of students said they support the new school lunch standards. However, newspaper headlines around the country (e.g., "Healthier School Lunches Face Student Rejection," The New York Times, 2012) show that the road from policy to practice can be a bumpy ride. But the message from research to schools is to keep moving forward.

Why it's Important

Food insecurity. The USDA's Economic Research Service reports that 1 in 10 households with children were not able to consistently provide nutritious food to their children (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2012). A survey of U.S. adults found that 1 in 4 worries about being able to buy food (Hart Research Associates, 2011). Although food insecurity is often viewed as an urban problem, it is just as likely to occur in rural areas (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2012). Researchers who examined the relationship between food insecurity and children's health and development determined it is "a prevalent risk to the growth, health, cognitive, and behavioral potential of America's poor and near-poor children" (Cook & Frank, 2008).

Obesity and associated problems.

Since 1980, the obesity rate among children ages 2-19 has nearly tripled, and is now 17 percent, and nearly that many children are overweight (CDC, 2010). Children eligible for subsidized school meals are 4.5 percent more likely to be overweight than their non-eligible peers, according to data from the National Survey of Children's Health (Li & Hooker, 2010). Note that an expert panel found no evidence that participation in subsidized meals causes obesity (USDA, 2005). Providing access to more healthful foods, however, is an essential part of helping children change their eating behaviors (CDC, 2013). School-based interventions are most likely to help children lose weight when they are long-term and include diet, exercise, and family components, according to a comprehensive research review (Khambalia et al., 2012).

Problems associated with excess weight become evident early in a child's life. Teachers of 13,680 third graders in the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study reported that overweight girls scored lower on measures of self-control and had more problems with behavior regulation, sadness, and worry than their non-overweight peers (Judge & Jahns, 2007). And obese children are at greater risk for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and other health problems later in life (CDC, 2013).

Effects on child development and performance. Diets low in essential nutrients during childhood can also have detrimental short- and long-term effects on brain function (Gomez-Inilla, 2008). Good nutrition is associated with increased school attendance and improved behavior, mood, and cognitive function--especially memory (Taras, 2005).

What Works

Continue to follow USDA nutrition guidelines. …

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