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Health and Nutrition: The Impact of School Lunches on Students

Updated on May 18, 2016

Food, a basic necessity of life, has grown to become an important component of life in regards to social aspects, culture, and well-being. As children interact with different foods, they begin to develop life long food associations that will affect their eating habits which in turn influence their ability to function and their growth. In today’s society, food has been made for convenience with a focus on easy accessibility rather than the nutritional value where children must begin to form positive associations with healthy foods. Because a student’s health and academic success is influenced by the quality of school lunches, adjustments need to be implemented to encourage the consumption of healthier meal options in order to improve and promote a wholesome, healthy lifestyle.

With agricultural and industrial advancements, the food industry has expanded in order to provide for a rapidly growing population. However, over the course of the years, there has been a greater concern on the increasing rate of obesity in both adults and children where the problems associated with being overweight include higher risks to heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other health issues. The rising rate of childhood obesity has been correlated with the fact that school lunches have, “ … decreased in nutrition but increased in proportion… obesity has increased from a low 4% to 18.4% from surveys taken from 1973-1974 to a survey taken from 2003-2004” (Childhood Obesity and School Lunches 1). In following USDA regulations, school lunch meals are prepared with specific serving sizes for “balanced meals” ; however, students claim that although the size of school lunches are appropriate, it is the quality of the meal that induces health concerns. With frozen french fries that are reheated and served as a daily component of school lunches, students question the health of their lunches. Bryan Hwang, a senior at Hammond High, exclaims that a significant contributing factor to the increasing rates of obesity is the omnipresence of fast food in America (Interview with Bryan Hwang). As America is a country that tries to waste as little time as possible, Americans will eat food that is prepared faster for their convenience 一 at the cost of their own health. This is evident within schools where pre-packaged, canned, and frozen meals are often served for efficiency and accessibility. Depending on different schools, only some meals are prepared from scratch; whereas, other schools mostly focus on serving processed foods.

In recognizing the health effects and importance of nutrition, schools can teach the basics of cooking and nutrition for students. Schools play an important role in ”... establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors…” (Childhood Obesity Facts 1). As a result, Food and Nutrition classes should be implemented where students become informed of chemicals within foods, taught how to make healthier food choices, the process in which their food is prepared, and ways to create healthier meal plans. As a result, schools provide opportunities for students to gain insight and acquire knowledge on healthy eating habits and physical activity behaviors that constitute an active, healthful lifestyle. Although family and consumer science classes, also known as home economics, is a course available to students, it is optional and not required by schools. By promoting these classes that teach food preparation, nutrition, and well-being, students can apply these skills outside of the classroom and to the world outside of school.

There is a correlation between the academic aptitude of a student and the type of food consumed. Wolpert discusses how food has the ability to alter mental functions which would have the ability of influencing cognitive abilities, and memory. Furthermore, Wolpert lists several foods and their benefits to the human body or mental health such as how omega-3 fatty acids have improved student performance in school. He claims that, “Children who had increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids performed better in school, in reading and in spelling and had fewer behavioral problems” (Wolper 1). In further studies, he indicates how school performance improved in several other groups of students receiving the omega-3 fatty acids. In an experimental Australian study, children who consumed beverages with omega-3 fatty acids were reported to score higher on tests measuring learning, memory, and verbal intelligence after several months compared to the control group of children who did not consume foods with omega-3 fatty acids. This study indicates the correlation of nutrition with academics where students given the nutritional drink performed with greater proficiency. Improvements in nutrition intake affects brain functions and cognitive abilities; whereas, a lack of minerals and vitamins can inhibit mental concentration. According to an article written by Timi Gustafson, a dietitian, he states that inadequate amounts of nutrients at meals can influence, “... kids’ IQ scores, memory capacities, fine motor skills, social skills and languages skills into early adulthood... even influence his sleep patterns” (Schuna 1). Without proper nutrition, a student’s cognitive abilities are affected to the point where they are unable to perform to the best of their abilities such as exhibiting hostility, lower mental stability, and scoring lower on tests. Furthermore, malnutrition affects brain development where a deficiency in nutrition can stunt motor and cognitive growth. By considering the effects of different foods on student learning, efforts to coordinate and accommodate healthier school lunches can improve the learning capacity of students.

There are various methods to improve and reform the school lunches to implement a healthier diet. Although students are “required” to include one vegetable and one fruit in their lunch, the consumption of fruits and vegetables went down 13% while more than 56% were thrown away (Cha 1). Despite regulations for incorporating fruits and vegetables within meals, it is imperative for school meals to introduce new strategies or supplements for students to experience rather than maintaining the same, mundane meals each day. One suggestion includes the introduction of chefs to schools where their presence and skills encourage students to eat more whole grains, vegetables and fruits. With chefs located in schools, Park claims that the amount of students who select fruit from lunch lines have, “... increased threefold compared to schools without a chef’s influence, and the odds that they actually tried some of the fruit increased by 17%” (Park 1). Similarly with vegetables, students are three times more likely to choose veggies, and 16% more likely to eat them. Chefs integrate new recipes and teach cafeteria staff how to prepare meals where a chef’s presence in the cafeteria can change the mentality of the students toward school lunches. Although the cost of hiring chefs to work in schools is currently undetermined and varies from location to location the benefits of employing a chef to improve school lunches is worth the payment. Ways to create new menus include holding recipe contests and tastings, taking restaurant menus and revising them, and asking for student input. Serena Suthers, direction of school food and nutrition services in Prince William County, states that, “For each food item, we look and say ‘can we afford this, is it good for them, does it meet all the new food requirements…’ but what's really important is are they going to buy it if we put it out there” (Doering 1). New ideas include holding tastings which directly asks for student opinions on school lunches which can improve the probability of students buying new lunch menu options through trying out samples. Souders, who works with the lunch-system in Arundel County, states by using samples and tastings, students go out of their comfort zones to attempt new foods which allows students to decide whether or not they like new foods (Interview with Eileen Souders). With great success, Souders demonstrates that samples and tastings are effective in increasing the amount of students tasting new foods. In doing so, schools can obtain student feedback and constructive criticism on school meals. However, implementing new programs and initiatives requires support and the ability of both students and adults to reach out. Thus, different types of improvements to school lunches can increase the percentage of both fruits and vegetables consumed, but more importantly begin the process of creating healthier school menus.

School lunches prove to play a significant role in health and learning through the nutrient value of school lunches, effects on the brain, and the chemicals involved within the food which influence student behavior. Accommodation of healthier eating patterns within schools and reformation to produce and serve higher nutritional value lunches can lower the rate at which childhood obesity is increasing and improve student work ethic. It is the responsibility of students to maintain diets that encourage a healthier well-being. It is the responsibility of adults and parents to implement foods for their students and children. It is the responsibility of society to promote healthier lifestyles. Thus, the reformation of school lunches must be employed for the success of students and future generations, and it is essential for students, parents, and teachers alike to advocate for changes within the system.


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