Opinion: Improving school nutrition will improve student learning

When students were served healthier lunches, their test scores increased. according to a major study. (AJC File)

Caitlin Daugherty Kokenes is a project associate with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

She holds a master’s in public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s in Hispanic studies from Auburn University, as well as an undergraduate degree in political science and Spanish from Auburn.

In this piece, she talks about the link between nutrition and student performance.

By Caitlin Daugherty Kokenes

Georgia recently submitted the new state plan for education under the Every Student Succeeds Act. While much of the attention given to the plan focuses on issues like accountability and assessments, it is worth noting that Georgia’s education strategy places the “Whole Child” at the center of our public education system.

When thinking of the whole child, the first component of care is to assess a child’s well-being: that is the state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy. One key factor in achieving health and comfort is good nutrition. Though schools are not solely responsible for the nutrition of students, thanks to our National School Lunch Program (NSLP), many students receive daily meals at school – and recent research shows a key link between nutrition and student learning.

Our country’s federally assisted meal program, the NSLP, was founded in 1946 to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to students each school day. Today, this program provides meals in over 100,000 public and non-profit private schools, as well as child care institutions. Students from families with income levels between 130 percent and 185 percent of federal poverty levels are eligible for reduced price or free meals, and in Georgia this group accounted for 60 percent of our student body in 2016 — over one million students.

Caitlin Daugherty Kokenes

For some students in this group, school lunch may be their only source of nutrition. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with the intent of raising minimum nutrition standards for public school lunches. This act was passed in part due to the growing concerns surrounding a nearly 20 percent obesity rate among America’s children, but there was little discussion at the time regarding the effect nutrition has on student learning. Though the links between diet and cognitive function and development have been widely documented, research has just recently shown how nutrition affects educational achievement.

Earlier this year, the National Bureau of Economic Research released the results of a study covering five academic years. That study measured the effect of healthier school lunches on end-of-year academic test scores for California public school students and found that in years when a school contracted with a healthy lunch company, students at the school had higher scores on their end-of-year academic tests.

Nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute analyzed school lunch menus using the 100-point “Healthy Eating Index” — a well-established food component analysis published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that determines how well food offerings match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. School lunches averaged a score of 59.9, compared to the average American diet of 63.8.

When students were served healthier lunches, their test scores increased. This impact was especially pronounced for low-income students. Those enrolled in the free or reduced priced school lunch program had test scores that rose nearly 40 percent. The increased costs for the healthier lunches was approximately $80 more per student per year. Considering the return on investment in student performance, it would be worthwhile for schools to explore how to put more resources towards increasing the nutrition of their food.

This is especially relevant in Georgia, where child poverty ranks 10th in the nation and continues to grow. As previously stated, over 1 million students in Georgia participate in the school lunch program. These children are some of our most vulnerable citizens in terms of hunger, and they are also more likely to live in what the USDA calls food deserts — areas more than one mile from a supermarket or other reliable source of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Many of these Georgians are considered food insecure, indicating they cannot afford to buy healthy food on a regular basis. As of 2014, close to 30 percent of Georgia children were living in food insecure households, and a new analysis reflects that as poverty increases in the state so does food insecurity. The same research found that areas with increasing food insecurity have less public transit access.

Children in food insecure homes are found to experience summer learning gaps much more severely than others. Though community partners work to provide these students with summer meals, access remains a challenge for citizens in the highest levels of poverty. For those children, receiving nutritious, quality food at school is essential to their well-being, and they are poised to make greater academic gains when they receive healthier school meals.

Georgia is trying to address challenges faced by our chronically underperforming schools. Through the focus on the whole child, the state is developing ways to ensure all children can meet their full potential, even those living in disinvested communities and overcoming the challenges of intergenerational poverty. Providing healthy, nutritious school meals to our youngest, most vulnerable citizens is a foundational step in breaking the poverty cycle and improving educational outcomes for all students.

Reader Comments 0

15 comments
redweather
redweather

This is one of those issues that isn't likely to get any traction here in Georgia because of all those parents, or maybe I should call them "parents," who are spending too much of their money on stuff like beer, cigarettes, and tattoos. If only we could get rid of all the irresponsible parents, which of course is not going to happen. So in the meantime the children suffer and continue to eat junk.

Mary Jo Burkholder Beck
Mary Jo Burkholder Beck

Improving parent involvement would improve student learning. We could put a lot ofr things before improve student learning and it would be true.

Donalyn Harris Vaughn
Donalyn Harris Vaughn

You can improve it, but you can't make the kids eat it. As long as they just keep trying to make healthier versions of SAD kid food, nothing will change, and as long as parents send their kids to school with soft drinks, candy, prepackaged junk, etc., nothing will matter.

Susan Blount Campbell
Susan Blount Campbell

I hope "nutritious" would include fresh whole foods and not prepackaged dreck like we've seen for the last few years. And provide enough food to fill them up! My son stopped buying after the last "reform" because not only was the food gross but there wasn't enough of it.

Beth Day
Beth Day

Good point. If only someone would try to improve school nutrition... Oh, wait.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

except -- my grandmother grew up dirt poor. like, they maybe had bread and oil for dinner many nights. very poor, like my grandmother went to work at 8 poor. She worked very hard, she was widowed young with two small children. And yet, she had five grandkids who all went to college and are doing relatively well. how did that happen?

Ruth Zackowitz Hartman
Ruth Zackowitz Hartman

Shira Newman we’ve had this chat before... it’s a completely different world than she grew up in. Apples to oranges.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

why? what is different? what has changed? let's go back there then.

Ashley Langford
Ashley Langford

What has changed? The fact that you could work part time and pay for college and graduate debt free. The fact that people in the middle class could survive off one income. The fact that graduation from college was almost a guarantee that you could have not just a job, but a career, with the possibility of advancement and benefits.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

I'm not talking about that. my grandmother never had the chance to go to college, she didn't finish junior high school (but still one of the smartest people I have ever known). The problem, though, isn't 'poverty.' -- not if plenty of people were capable of lifting themselves up out of poverty. there was no advancement, there was none of that. I bet we could figure it out. What has actually changed?

readcritic
readcritic

Ask those in the schools about what happens to the lunches provided. The students dump them in the trash, but they have money to buy chips and soda and other vending machine items and they have expensive brand name sneakers in many colors to match their outfits and have the newest cell phones, which they use during class instead of paying attention to the lesson.  It really is a completely different world.

Ashley Langford
Ashley Langford

“How was my grandmother who lived in poverty and then had two children who were able to have their children graduate college? What has changed?” *gives answer* “I don’t like that”