Behavior and Performance Improve When School Serves Good Food

Excitability, poor concentration, and low achievement in the classroom have been linked to poor diets at home and, sadly, at school.

Healthy eating options can make a significant positive impact on student attention and discipline, say teachers at Appleton Central Alternative School (ACAS) in Wisconsin, and alternative public high school for young people at higher risk of dropping out or getting into trouble.

Five years ago the school stumbled upon a local, commercial whole grains bakery called Natural Ovens. In 1997 the bakery had initiated a five-year project to bring healthy food into area schools. The company’s goal was to show that fresh, nutritious food can make a real difference in student behavior, learning, and health. A biochemist founded Natural Ovens in 1976 to provide healthy alternatives to junk food in the Midwest.

Changing the Menu, Ending an Epidemic

Appleton Central Alternative School, then experiencing an epidemic of disruptive student behavior, took up Natural Oven’s no-strings offer to provide free, fruit-based natural energy drinks and whole grain bagels for their student body to start the day. Previously, students had binged on caffeinated soda, candy, and toaster pastries to get a morning energy boost.

The results of this experiment on the student body were dramatic. "It’s common sense," explained Greg Bretthauer, ACAS dean of students. "With a decent balanced diet, students will perform better in school." The vast majority of students formerly ate absolutely no breakfast, he said.

Natural and Minimally Processed Foods

On the basis of this initial success, Natural Ovens built the alternative school a kitchen and hired two cooks. For lunch there’s a 15-item salad bar, plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, and an entrée of the day (poultry, fish, lean pork or beef).

Foods are all freshly prepared, low in fat, salt, and sugar, and all free of chemical additives, artificial flavors and colorings. Nothing is fried or greasy. No hydrogenated fats are used. Sugary beverages are absent. Water is available throughout the day. Fruit juice and low fat milk are the other beverages. The school also provides a natural breakfast.

No More Dropouts, Expulsions, Suicides

Principal LuAnn Coenen is amazed at the change she has seen in her school. Each year principals are required to file a state of Wisconsin report with the number of drop outs, expulsions, suicides, and students caught with weapons and using drugs. Since the start of the program, the numbers in every category have been "zero".

ACAS teacher Mary Bruyette believes, "If you’ve been guzzling Mountain Dew and eating chips and you’re flying all over the place, I don’t think you’re going to pick up a whole lot in class." She reports that the students are now calm and well behaved. "I don’t have to deal with daily discipline issues."

Another teacher noted, "They are on task. They are attentive. They can concentrate for longer periods of time."

Students agree that food affects their behavior, academic achievement, and athletic ability. Through the program students learn first-hand about the role of a healthy diet in their own quality of life. Returning students are now the advocates for the program.

Students who previously had been headed for trouble have turned their lives around, according to Dr. Thomas Scullen, Apple Area School District superintendent. "We have kids who had had a lot of problems get through the whole last year without an expulsion. Drop-outs dropped to non-existent. Kids came to school. They have learned that with healthier foods, it’s going to make them a better person. It keeps them more focused and makes them happier."

Good Nutrition is Worth the Expense

"I can’t buy the argument that it’s too expensive to provide nutrition for students," argues Principal Coenen.

Bruyette agrees, "Nutiriton for kids should be part of the general operating budget. We’re concerned about everything else – band uniforms, the football team, text books… Why not be concerned about nutrition? It seems the basis for creating a positive learning environment."

Last September, the entire school district with 15,000 students in 25 buildings began converting to the Natural Ovens program. Snack and soda vending machines are out and natural foods and balanced meals are being phased in.

Sources: Growing for Market, August 2003, 9/03 Farm and Food Show interview with Greg Bretthauer Field Notes (Kerr Center), Fall 2003.

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