As Kingsport and Sullivan County students return to school Monday, local food services folks and national studies indicate that nutritious meals help students’ physical development and behavior as well as brain function.
“Nutrition can affect learning through three channels: physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory) and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity),” a University of California, Berkeley, team wrote in its study results. For example, researchers said, 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.
IS THERE MORE INFORMATION ON HOW HEALTHY MEALS HELP?
“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, as reported by the New York Times.
The Times on June, 6, 2017, also reported student studies have demonstrated that “students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher” on statewide achievement tests. That was according to Michael L. Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues. 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, according to the Times.
Some school systems 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.
WHAT IF STUDENTS CAN’T AFFORD MEALS?
Jennifer Walker, supervisor of School Nutrition Services for Kingsport City Schools, said that the district had a total enrollment of 7,321 students with 3,045 identified as poverty level via state programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program), TNAF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and foster children benefits as of April 1.
“This number equals 41.59 percent and increases to 66.54 percent after adding students whose families apply for meal benefits F and R (free and reduced applications) at the school level only,” Walker said.
Walker and Sullivan County Supervisor of School Nutrition Amber Anderson said the only good or sometimes only meals some students get are at school, one reason both systems and Second Harvest Food Bank provide free summer feeding programs for those 18 and younger.
In Sullivan, Anderson said that of 9,615 students on April 1, 35 percent were eligible for free meals via SNAP, TNAF and being foster children, a level that grew to 53.6 with those eligible for F and R at the school level.
In Kingsport, students in Jackson, Johnson, Kennedy, Lincoln and Roosevelt elementaries and Sevier Middle get free breakfast and lunch through the Community Eligibility Program, while in the county all students in Emmett and Ketron elementaries get free meals, and all students in Bluff City Elementary and Holston Valley Middle get free breakfasts.
WHERE DID LATEST HEALTHIER SCHOOL FOOD MOVE BEGIN?
In 2010, supported by then-first lady Michelle Obama, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It revamped the nation’s school lunch program to increase servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, provide age-appropriate calories, remove trans fats and limit levels of sodium. Schools were given incentives in the form of meal reimbursement funds to prompt them to participate.
Some of those requirements have been rolled back under President Donald Trump’s administration, but Walker said students have become accustomed for the most part to things such as whole grain bread and more vegetables. In addition, Anderson said the manufacturers have better products now that meet requirements, whereas before they were rushing to meet the mandates after having already prepared the food for the service contracts.
Walker said athletes and marching band members might need more calories and can buy those a la carte. She said the federal requirements give minimum and maximum calorie counts based on grade levels.
In the 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.
Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, later 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.
However, Anderson said that the whole grain level only applies to biscuits and pasta, which are served a few times a month, not to rolls, toast, buns and sandwich bread.