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Nutrition and Schools

Guidelines, what works and inspired ideas in action.

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).


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 Hunger-Free 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. “Compliance with nutrition standards for school lunch programs can improve healthful intake among children, which can help prevent childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes,” concluded researchers at Promise Neighborhoods Research Consortium (PNRC), who examined policies related to child nutrition.

Food preferences can change with repeat exposure to new tastes, says researcher Elizabeth Capaldi (Keane, 2010). Also, school nutrition directors and even celebrity chefs are trying to make the new school lunches more appealing in presentation and taste (see School Meals that Rock and Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution examples in the “Resources: Inspired Ideas in Action” sidebar). Especially needed are appetizing ways to serve vegetables. Analysis of 27 school-based nutrition programs involving 26,361 children showed that getting children to eat more fruit is easier than getting them to eat more vegetables, and it is a start (Evans et al., 2012).

Offer breakfast. A review of the research on breakfast and learning shows that skipping breakfast “is associated with quantifiable negative consequences for academic, cognitive, health and mental functioning” (Murphy, 2007). Programs that offer free school breakfasts to all children were found to increase breakfast eating, and teachers and principals reported that learning improved as a result (Murphy, 2007).

Because some students don’t have breakfast at home and arrive too late to eat breakfast at school, some schools are trying nontraditional approaches. For instance, students might pick up a grab-and-go breakfast from the cafeteria and eat it during the first few minutes of class (see the “Resources: Inspired Ideas in Action” sidebar). This strategy seems to work. The Food Research and Action Center (2013) compared school breakfast policies in 57 large school districts and found that allowing students to eat breakfast in their classrooms at the start of the day resulted in significantly higher participation. Smaller districts are also having success with this strategy: A high-poverty middle school in West Virginia reported a fourfold increase in breakfast participation, improved attendance, less tardiness, 20 percent fewer office referrals and 15 percent fewer suspensions a year after the school began offering grab-and-go breakfasts (Mays, 2012).

Lead Them to Water. Water is a vital nutrient, essential for bodies to function, and children and teens don’t drink enough of it. The new USDA standards require schools to make water available with school meals. Providing easy access to drinking water throughout the day can reduce students’ consumption of sugary drinks, improve dental health, limit excess weight gain, and improve cognitive functioning (Patel & Hampton, 2011).

Buy Local. Farm to School programs can increase children’s access to fresh foods at school, provide experiential education for sustainability, and reduce the costs of providing healthful food, according to the PNRC. The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill paved the way for such programs by allowing schools to give preference to food that is produced locally.

Be Mindful of the “Big Picture.” Nutrition services are only one component of the CDC’s recommended Coordinated School Health approach. Other components are health education; physical education; health services; counseling, psychological and social services; healthy and safe school environment; health promotion for staff; and family/community involvement.

Carla Thomas McClure is an education writer/editor at Synergy Enterprises, Inc.

Resources: Inspired Ideas in Action

Breakfast First
Schools are increasing student access and participation by using alternatives to the traditional school breakfast model. California’s Breakfast First initiative offers success stories, videos, webinars, and fact sheets on three successful models: grab and go, classroom, and second chance breakfasts.

Fuel UP to Play 60
Founded by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, this program provides tools to help students and adults jointly plan and implement schoolwide healthy “moves” related to food and exercise.

Green Bronx Machine
Stephen Ritz teaches disenfranchised students in the South Bronx how to grow vegetables on city walls and rooftops. The food they grow at school is used in the cafeteria, and the skills they learn translate into jobs after graduation.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver says families, schools, and communities can work together to get kids “hooked” on healthy eating. His website provides ready-to-use presentation materials, tool kits, and how-to guides for Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools and other initiatives.

School Meals that Rock
School nutrition programs from across the country share success stories, photos, and ideas for making healthful food more appealing to children. Foodservice Director magazine named moderator Dayle Hayes, a registered dietitian, as one of 2012’s most influential people in noncommercial food service.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Childhood obesity facts.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Components of coordinated school health.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Nutrition facts.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Overweight and obesity: Strategies and solutions.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents: United States, Trends 1963-1965 through 2007-2008.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., & Carlson, S. (2012). Household food security in the United States in 2011 (Economic Research Report No. 141).

Cook, J. T., & Frank, D. A. (2008). Food security, poverty, and human development in the United States. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1136, 193-209.

Evans, C.E., Christian, M. S., Cleghorn, C. L., Greenwood, D. C., & Cade, J. E. (2012). Systematic review and meta-analysis of school-based interventions to improve daily fruit and vegetable intake in children aged 5 to 12 y. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(4), 889-901.

Food Research and Action Center. (2013). School breakfast: Making it work in large urban districts: School year 2011-2012.

Gomez-Inilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 56-578.

Judge, S., & Jahns, L. (2007). Association of overweight with academic performance and social and behavioral problems: An update from the early childhood longitudinal study. The Journal of School Health, 77(10), 672-678.

Khambalia, A. Z., Dickinson, S., Hardy, L. L., Gill, T., & Baur, L. A. (2012). A synthesis of existing systematic reviews and meta-analyses of school-based behavioural interventions for controlling and preventing obesity. Obesity Reviews, 13(3), 214-233.

Li, J., & Hooker, N. H. (2010). Childhood obesity and schools: Evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Journal of School Health, 80(2), 96-103.

Mays, M. (2012, October 27). School breakfast participation in West Virginia. Charleston Gazette.

Murphy, J. M. (2007). Breakfast and learning: An updated review. Journal of Current Nutrition and Food Science, 3(2), 3-36.

Patel, A., & Hampton, K. (2011). Encouraging consumption of water in school and child care settings: Access, challenges, and strategies for improvement. American Journal of Public Health, 101(8), 1370-1379.

Promise Neighborhoods Research Consortium. (n.d.). Omega-3.

Promise Neighborhoods Research Consortium. (n.d.). Policies [An online summary of scientific evidence for various policies that affect child well-being].

Taras, H. L. (2005). Nutrition and student performance at school. Journal of School Health, 75, 199-213.

The California Endowment. (2012). Californians overwhelmingly support recent school meals overhaul; Students say lunches are getting better [Press release reporting survey results].;-students-say-lunches-are-getting-better

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2005). Obesity, poverty, and participation in nutrition assistance programs: Summary.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2013). Nutrition standards for school meals.