IntroductionThe school nutrition program strongly impacts the behavior and the health and well-being of the students whom attend and eat at school (Cluss, Fee, Culyba, Bhat, & Owen, 2014). Over 55 million American children are enrolled in elementary or secondary school, and of these students, over 90% of enrollees attend schools that offer 1 or more Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs (Cluss et al., 2014). In addition, most of these students consume foods sold at school. Most children eat at least 1 meal at school, either brought from home or provided by the school. Many will have more than 1 meal, along with snacks and other supplementary foods which are available through vending machines or brought from home (Krukoski, Perez, Bursac, Goodeli, Raczynski, West, & Phillips, 2011). In the past few years, schools have begun to make an effort to provide more nutritious meals to students, remove vending machines which provide unhealthy snacks, and provide healthy breakfast alternatives to low-income students (Krukoski,et al., 2011). However, these efforts have been met with resistance from both students and parents (Krukoski, 2011).
Healthy eating patterns during childhood and early adulthood help to promote childhood health, growth, and intellectual and emotional development, and may prevent long-term health problems such as coronary heart disease, cancer, and stroke (Williamson, Johnson, Martin, & Newton, 2013). School health programs can help children and adolescents attain full educational potential and good health by providing them with the skills, social support, and environmental reinforcement they need to learn healthy eating behaviors early in life which will support them throughout adulthood (Cluss et al., 2014).
Undernutrition in Low-Income Areas
Even moderate undernutrition can have lasting effects on children’s cognitive development and school performance (Krukoski et al., 2011). Chronically undernourished children have been shown to attain lower scores on standardized achievement tests, among other school activities (Williamson et al., 2013). When children are underfed or undernourished, they have difficulty resisting infection and are therefore more likely than more well-fed children to become sick, to miss school, and to fall behind in general (Williamson et al., 2013). Children who are malnourished tend to exhibit low energy, which can limit their physical activity, which increases their risk of obesity (Cluss et al., 2014). Consuming high-calorie, low-nutrition-value food also adds to the risk of obesity (Williamson et al., 2013). Obesity has been shown to be a major factor in many chronic diseases, and many times, it starts in childhood (Cluss et al., 2014).
School Breakfast and Lunch Programs in Low-Income Areas
Many reduced-cost and free breakfast and lunch programs are available in areas which are considered low-income. However, the issue here is that the schools involved in providing these reduced cost meals also are located in low-income areas, which means that their availability to funding is severely limited compared to schools in more affluent areas (Williamson et al., 2013). This is an issue of considerable concern, because the children attending these schools and depending on these meals for adequate nutrition are likely to come from families with limited income to provide nutritious food, which tends to be expensive compared to the ordinary staples depended on by low-income families (Kruskoski et al., 2011). Therefore, the children who are in most need of nutritious food being provided through their schools are the ones least likely to receive it (Williamson et al., 2013). Unfortunately, the children receiving low-cost, high-fat and high-calorie food at home because it is less expensive are also the children who are likely to receive the same low-quality food served in a school setting (Williamson et al., 2013).
How Schools Can Affect Children’s Eating Habits
Children need nutritional education to help them develop lifelong eating patterns in order to maintain their health (Krukowski et al.,2011). Schools are ideal settings for nutrition education for several reasons:
• Schools are the best way to reach almost all children and adolescents.
• Schools have the ability to teach and maintain healthy eating habits. More than half of children in the United States eat 1 major meal in school, and 1 in 10 children and adolescents eats 2 of 3 main meals in school (Williamson et al., 2013).
• Trained personnel are available to address healthy eating habits. After appropriate training, teachers can use their skills and food service personnel can contribute their expertise to nutrition education programs (Krukowski et al., 2011).
Because of the many issues involved in the adequate nutrition of our nation’s children, and the fact that most of them receive at least 1 meal at school, and many receive 2, it is of utmost importance that the issue of adequate nutrition in school meals be addressed immediately. Although this issue has been discussed for years, little has actually been done to change the problems inherent in the system: vending machines providing junk food and carbonated beverages, deep fried items as the main entrée in the menu, and no access to fresh fruits or vegetables (Williamson et al., 2013). In order to provide our school children with adequate nutrition, it will be necessary to make some concessions: remove vending machines, cut down on cheaply prepared fried foods, and supply fresh foods such as salad bars and fresh fruits and vegetables as options.
This is not just an issue about what our children eat; it is an issue about how our children live; whether they grow up healthy or obese; whether they develop heart disease because of an overeating of fatty foods or not; whether they learn to eat in a healthy manner as adults, and teach their own children, in turn, to do the same. This is not a matter to be taken lightly; this is a matter which affects many generations to come, and we are the ones who must initiate the process.
- Cluss, P. A., Fee, L., Culyba, R. J., Bhat, K. B. & Owen, K. (Jun 2014). Effect of food service nutrition improvements on elementary school cafeteria lunch purchase patterns. Journal of School Health 84(4): p. 355-362.
- Krukoski, R. A., Perez, A. G. P., Bursac, Z., Goodeli, M., Raczynski, J. M., West, D. S., & Phillips, M. M. (Aug 2011). Development and evaluation of the school cafeteria nutrition assessment measures. Journal of School Health 81(8): p. 431-436.
- Williamson, D. A., Han, H., Johnson, W. D., Martin, C. K. & Newton, R. L. (Feb 2013). Modification of the school cafeteria environment can impact childhood nutrition. Results from the Wise Mind and LA Health studies. Appetite 61: p. 77-84.