Feeding Mind and Body: A New Role for Schools

Back in April, we wrote about how American households are not immune to the phenomenon of food insecurity. A recent New York Times piece discusses the importance of school meals in students’ development and learning. The benefits of having ready access to nutritious meals are, according to a research team at the University of California-Berkeley, threefold: “physical development” (e.g. eyesight), “cognition” (concentration and memory), and “behavior” (hyperactivity) are all directly impacted by what a student eats during the crucial formative years between kindergarten and high school.


When Michelle Obama was the first lady, she started health initiatives in school districts nationwide by setting up programs that incentivize schools to invest in healthier options for students. These programs did indeed have an impact: one study found that simply moving the salad bar from the margins to the middle of the serving area increased uptake. However, the current Congress has taken steps to dismantle many of these initiatives. It is surprising that a topic as seemingly uncontroversial as student nutrition could be treated as a partisan issue, especially given the fact that experts from multiple disciplines agree on its importance.


In states that have prioritized school nutrition, the results have been clear. Students at schools that work with healthy lunch vendors score significantly higher on standardized tests than their counterparts at schools without healthy options. Some schools have even ventured into providing breakfast and dinner for students that might otherwise go hungry outside of school hours (e.g. during after school activities.)


Funding is certainly always a factor, as school budgets face real challenges in delivering quality education with limited resources. However, research shows that some of the objections to healthy meals are untrue. If we think of student nutrition as an investment in their academic and personal development, and by extension, an investment in the future of society, prioritizing student health should be a no-brainer. It’s as clear as the very benefits of healthy food.





Sleep, School, and the Teenager

The New York Times recently reported that biology may be to blame when it comes to teenagers’ sleep schedules. Young children who wake up early usually grow into teenagers who are difficult to rouse in time for school even though middle and high schools classes start earlier. Apparently, “adolescent bodies” naturally want to operate on a schedule shifted later than those of young children: they want to go to bed late, and get up late. This phenomenon - adolescent sleep delay - is not limited to humans; in fact, other mammals display it as well.


The consequence of this relative incompatibility between a teen’s body clock and school schedule appears in performance. Students tend to do better in tests - both cognitive and coursework related - taken in the afternoon. To catch up on alertness, adolescents might turn to caffeine for help during the day, leading to a “tired but wired” state that one clinical psychologist said led to more risk-taking behavior. Even without specific risk-taking, tired adolescents in general are in more danger than if they were well-rested, especially if they drive amid such fatigue.


Sleep is important in the discussion about adolescent health because of its link to what experts call the “adolescent health paradox:” teenagers, who are in a “developmental period of physical strength and resilience, face disproportionately high mortality rates.” According to the article, programs aimed at specific issues like substance abuse or unsafe sex are expensive and not always successful. Approaching sleep as one of the facets of overall health that can support teenagers during their development would be much more meaningful.


It is difficult to think of ways to feasibly incorporate sleep support into, say, the academically-rigorous nature of high school and even middle school. However, it is important for schools and parents to remember the effect a 24-hour sleep cycle can have on a student’s concentration, mood, or emotional decisions and health. The link between sleep health and behavioral health is real, and there is evidence for the connection to academic performance as well. There are some sleep scientists or child psychologists who actually advocate later school start times. While it may be difficult to implement such structural changes, it is important to remember the importance of the science behind such proposals impacting students and classrooms every day.

Securing a Good Start to Education

Today’s topic addresses one that may seem obvious to us, but also surprising in the United States. Children who grow up hungry in the first few years of childhood have been shown to lag behind classmates in school years later. Food insecurity, or being without reliable access to nutritious food, is a phenomenon that can be found in the United States: more than 13 million children are currently living in food-insecure homes nationwide. A recent article summarized in NPR (originally published in the journal Child Development) found that children who live in these homes before the age of five are more likely to lag behind their classmates in school socially and cognitively.


Also, it appears that these children don’t catch up to their peers. Researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2000 to 2006 to follow more than 10,000 children born in these households throughout their young childhood. They also interviewed the parents of these children to ask them about recent times they may have worried about food for the household. The researchers found that the younger that children were when they were exposed to food hardship, the stronger the negative effect on their performance in kindergarten (performance was measured by their ability to pay attention in class, their tendency to be hyperactive or throw tantrums, and their math and reading skills).


This negative effect might not be entirely attributable to the children themselves. After all, if children are hungry, then their parents are likely to be as well. The researchers affirmed that parents who are hungry can be more irritable and tired, and are less likely to engage with their children. These findings are certainly not surprising, but they confirm some important facts about early childhood and the important link between nutrition, parent interaction, and school performance. It is difficult to design interventions for very young children before they attend daycare or preschool, but the projections from this stage in life to performance in school cannot be ignored.

Food insecurity is definitely not just a foreign phenomenon, and not just an adult one. That there are millions of American children at risk of being insufficiently prepared for school should shock us all - but thanks to this kind of research, we’ll be able to lay the groundwork for erasing this gap in potential for children starting now.