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NUTRITION AND ITS EFFECTS ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE HOW CAN OUR SCHOOLS IMPROVE
The purpose of this paper was to review existing literature about past research that highlighted studies concerning nutrition and its relationship to brain function, cognition, learning, and social behaviors. There is evidence that school breakfast and lunch programs are not up to par with current United States Department of Agriculture standards and that USDA standards may not be utilizing the latest research about nutrition. Studies have shown that proper nutrition has a direct effect on student performance and behavior in school. Much of the literature I reviewed confirmed that nutrition has a direct effect on neurotransmitters which are important in sending messages from the body to the brain. Specific dietary components were shown to have negative effects on this system, many of which are commonplace in school-aged children’s daily eating. Unfortunately, school breakfast and lunch programs, in many cases, inhibit the body’s cognitive and energy potentials by not providing proper nutrition. The problem has also added to the obesity rate amongst American students, which also has added to the lower achievement in school. In many studies, cases of socioeconomic status seem to be an indicator of food insufficiency, which is simply the lack of available food to a household. Food insufficiency has been shown to directly affect children’s cognitive development. What schools can do to improve upon existing nutritional conditions is a focus of the latter section of the paper. Many schools across the nation have invested in nutrition by way of enhanced breakfast and lunch programs. Some have even gone so far as to grow fresh produce in school gardens. Finally, recommendations are explored and given for ways schools can help improve the nutrition of their food programs, thus taking steps to ensure students are given the energy needed for normal cognitive development and social skills.
In an educational world filled with failing schools and apathetic students, state boards of education have searched for answers on how to increase test scores and create school systems where all students receive the best education possible. Amongst the plethora of possible solutions, perhaps they should look first at the nutritional substance of what our school-aged children are eating each day as they struggle through a day of learning. There is a correlation between nutrition and cognition as well as psychosocial behavior; this relationship has been highly under-researched, but there exists many studies that look at the nutritional benefits of many proteins, vitamins, and food substances as they affect learning and brain function. Our schools have the potential to play a vital role in preparing and sustaining our students’ potential learning abilities and benefitting their social behaviors by supplying nutritious breakfasts and lunches during school days.
Providing the nation’s low-income youth with nutritious food has been a concern for over a hundred years. To see that food insufficient students were adequately fed, school lunch programs began during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. From the beginning the program had two goals: to make use of surplus agricultural commodities owned by the government as a result of price-support agreement with the farmers and to help prevent nutritional deficiencies among low-income school children by feeding them nutritious meals. On June 4, 1946 President Truman signed an act known as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This was in response to claims that had been made that many American men were rejected from WWII military service due to diet-related health problems. The federally assisted meal program was created to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the consumption of American-grown commodities. The federal government would reimburse schools for student who qualified for free or reduced meals. Students who didn’t qualify were able to purchase lunch, and their money was used to off-set the costs of building new facilities for the expanding program. The program started to expand because of the increasing number of women working outside the home during the war (Winchell, 2009).
Since 1946 the National School Lunch Act’s laws and regulations have been amended twenty-two times. Today’s program has over 100 years of testing, evaluating, and constant research to make sure the program provides the best in nutrition, nutrition education, and foodservice for millions of students. The school lunch program has become so accepted that most Americans don’t think of it as welfare (Winchell, 2009). The USDA still maintains control over the program, but there are still funding issues with more than half of school lunches free or reduced. According to the National Nutrition Standards, which are published by the School Nutrition Association, in order for schools to receive federal subsidies for free or reduced lunch meals they must follow Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which state meals must provide one third of the RDA of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. No more than 30% of the meals calories should be from fat and fewer than 10% of the calories should come from saturated fat. Current regulations require that NSLP meals contain (SNA, 2008):
1) One to two ounces of meat/meat alternative daily
2) 10-14 serving of grains/bread per week
3) One half cup fruit daily
4) One half cup vegetables daily
5) 8 ounces of milk daily
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also oversees the largest school breakfast program in the world. The School Breakfast Program (SBP) was part of the 1966 Child Nutrition Act. The legislation’s original goal was to offer breakfast to students from low-income families. It was created as a pilot project to provide meals for children “in poor areas and areas where students had to travel a great distance to get to school” (Kennedy & Davis, 1998, p. 798).
By 1975 amendments to the Child Nutrition Act made the SBP permanent. Congress planned to make the program available in all schools to enrich the well-being of school-aged students. In later years, Congress chose to expand the availability of the SBP, so in 1989 the Child Nutrition Act was once again amended. The Secretary of Agriculture was then required to award funding to states, with schools that had a large proportion of children from low-income families, who wanted to begin the SBP (Kennedy & Davis, 1998).
Like the NSLP, the USDA subsidizes school breakfasts, with the amount of subsidy dependent upon the families’ income and size. In order for a school to receive the subsidy it must follow dietary guidelines. The goal of the SBP is to provide one fourth of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for energy and selected nutrients. According to the School Nutrition
Association current meal patterns require that the SBP serve the following on a daily basis (SNA, 2008):
1) One half to two ounces of meat/meat alternative
2) 1-2 servings of grains/bread
3) Three quarters of a cup of fruit/vegetables
4) 8 ounces of milk
Proper nutrition is critical to maximizing brain function and enhancing learning. Helping children develop healthful habits from a young age will aid them in reaching their optimal potential.
Statement of the Problem
This research paper attempts to look at research that addresses the relevance of nutrition and its effects on brain development, cognition, and social behaviors. It will use the research to help develop possible steps that schools can take to ensure that their food programs adhere to the high standards of federal nutrition guidelines that are based upon the latest research. The question remains concerning the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and if their nutritional guidelines closely follow the latest research in nutritional health and its effects on brain development and cognition. The same concern for school breakfast and lunch programs exists; schools need to ensure that their programs follow the state and national guidelines. Parents need to make sure that their students are eating school program breakfasts and lunches if they are up to par with USDA guidelines. It is hoped that adequate research exists that is readily available to schools and parents so that children have the opportunity to be as nutritionally healthy as possible for optimal brain function, cognitive development, positive social behaviors, and energy to carry out school activities.
This research paper is based upon and attempts to answer the following questions:
Definition of Terms
body mass index (BMI) – BMI is a number calculated from a person’s height and weight. It provides a reliable indicator of body fatness for most people and is used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems (CDC, 2000).
food insufficiency – Food insufficiency is when an individual or a family has limited access to or availability of food or a limited or uncertain ability to acquire food in socially acceptable ways (Jyoti et al., 2005).
obesity – Obesity is when the BMI is at or above the 95th percentile for children/adults of the same weight and sex (CDC, 2000).
overweight – Being overweight is when the BMI is at or above the 85th percentile but lower than the 95th percentile (CDC, 2000).
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