Fueling Academic Performance: Fostering Healthy Eating Among Students
It may not come as a surprise that youth face a number of food-related concerns, such as poor nutrition, obesity, and hunger. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in 2010 nearly 20 percent of 9th and 10th grade students in Minnesota were obese. Second Harvest Heartland found that 10 percent of households in Minnesota do not have stable access to food and that an estimated 1 in 6 Minnesota children are at risk of hunger. School is one venue where we can start to address all of these issues.
A nutritious diet can improve students’ behavior and thinking skills, such as learning, memory, and concentration. These impacts, along with the physical health benefits of good nutrition, can all affect academic performance.
Given that nutrition plays a critical role in students’ cognition, health, and academic performance what can be done to support it? I recently worked on a project to find out what schools are doing to support nutrition, and discovered that they are using some creative strategies.
School Districts are Experimenting with How Food is Displayed to Spur Students to Select Healthier Options
Recent research drawing on the fields of behavioral economics, psychology, and marketing has shown that changing how food is presented can encourage students to select healthier options. In a New York school, researchers discovered that shifting the salad bar to a more prominent location in the lunchroom led to increased sales and consumption of items from the salad bar.
Locally, Minnesota schools are taking multiple approaches to increasing participation in meals and cultivating healthy eating among students. Some examples include:
- Increasing awareness of school menus and nutrition. Schools are inviting families to sample dishes and giving tours of lunchrooms, along with using social media to communicate updates and information about nutrition with parents and students.
- Working with local community members to develop healthy recipes and ethnic dishes. Saint Paul school district staff worked with community members to develop recipes, while being clear about constraints such as budget, time, and nutritional guidelines.
- Offering more fresh fruits and vegetables. Schools districts are giving students several fresh fruit and vegetable options and using small portions for taste testing to find out the right combinations that align with students’ tastes.
- Exploring how to use local fruit, vegetables, and other foods (e.g., cheese, wild rice, or honey) to create new, healthy dishes. Rosemount school district staff identified local foods to feature in lunchtime dishes and will highlight a locally grown or produced item on a specific day each month.
Parents, Teachers, Students and Staff Can All Play a Role in Guiding Their School's Nutrition Program
One of the key lessons I learned in researching school nutrition is that parents, teachers, students, and staff can all play a role in guiding their school’s nutrition program. Each one of these groups brings a different perspective that can inform how to serve healthier food at school.
Nick Stuber, a research associate at Wilder Research, works on a variety of research and evaluation studies in human services, including children’s health and public health related initiatives.