As times have changed, so have discipline problems. Fifty years ago it was chewing gum; today it is concealed guns. Of course, change is inevitable. After all, society is changing, so there’s nothing to be done about worsening school problems. All we can do is bring in more psychiatrists, prescribe more prescription drugs, hire more security officers, install more metal detectors. Right?
Think again. What if the problem, and therefore the solution, was right under our noses? Literally. As in, what we are putting into our mouths. Or more specifically, into our children’s mouths.
What a tantalizing thought! School discipline problems, solved with salads! Bananas stopping bullies! Whole-wheat bread transforming whole classrooms into attentive students! Could it be true? Where did the current school lunch program go wrong? And if food can make such a difference, can change be implemented?
Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes, in their essay “Lunch Lessons,” explore the origins of the school lunch program and offer the suggestion that money and politics have sidetracked it, exchanging the health of our children for the profitability of large food corporations. In 1946, they state, the government signed into law the National School Lunch Act, in response to research proving that children who were not hungry were more attentive. The Act was intended to feed children healthy meals while also providing a guaranteed market for farmers. Initially these goals were met, but over time, Cooper and Holmes assert, a conflict of interest arose. The USDA began responding to Big Food lobbyists and their political interests rather than the interests of the nation’s small farmers—the ones the 1946 Act was originally intended to benefit—and ultimately, the interests of the children. (1)
With this shift in focus the commodity program began supplying to schools more and more processed foods and fewer and fewer whole foods (1). Cooper and Holmes examined the School Year 2005 Commodity List and reported the following:
“On the School Year 2005 Commodity list we were astonished to find that the only whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables on the list were apples, oranges, grapefruit, pears, carrots, and potatoes. The rest were processed in one way or another. A thinking person might ask why. Why so many processed foods? Why so few whole foods? Did I miss something? Are farmers now farming pre-breaded chicken nuggets and growing fruits canned in heavy syrups? (1)”
But what difference does it make? Kids are accustomed to eating such processed foods and like them. Isn’t the goal to fill the children’s stomachs? If the food fills them up, won’t they be more attentive?
Not necessarily. Consider the case of a school in Appleton:
In 1996 the Central Alternative High School in Appleton, Wisconsin was out of control. Kids carried weapons. Drugs were everywhere, and the hallways between classes were mayhem. Teachers were unhappy and students were beyond unruly—it got so bad they hired a full time cop to police the halls. And then, in 1997 everything changed. Kids calmed down, teachers began to feel good about going to work, and there were no more problems with drugs, weapons or expulsions—a trend that has continued right up to the present day. What changed? The food. Fast and processed foods were replaced by wholesome nutritious fare and kids just started to feel better. (Cooper and Holmes 1)
Appleton is not the only school in the nation to experiment with healthier food choices. In California, Enid Hohn believed she could competitively replace corporate vending contracts in her school while offering students better eating choices. The newsletter Harvard Public Health NOW tells her story:
“Enid Hohn, director of a nutrition services division for a school district in San Diego County, described her crusade for healthier eating options in elementary and high schools. She has purchased a bevy of vending machines that offer healthier options than the typical chips and candy bars, including crackers, pretzels, granola bars, and bagels. In addition to sodas, students can choose from among milk, juice, and sports drinks. Bottled water has proven to be a more popular choice than soda, lending credence to the idea that children will make healthier decisions if given the option, Hohn said. She is now trying to develop a nutrition and fitness center at one of the elementary schools in her district. (Roache 1)”
Ann Cooper, a chef who sits on the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board and who is one of the authors of “Lunch Lessons,” has done it in New York (Cooper 1). Enid Hohn has done it in San Diego. The Central Alternative High School has done it in Appleton, WI. These people are finding success, both in terms of monetary revenues and in the health of their children.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But I wonder: the Appleton program was started nine years ago. Results were conclusively in at least four years ago. Enid Hohn proved the financial feasibility of her program over three years ago. Other success stories abound. Yet, why aren’t there more professionals studying these results? A Google™ search for the words “Appleton healthy lunch” brings up results predominantly dominated by special interest groups — organic, holistic and health food communities — a sprinkling of news sites, and a handful of educators. The same search on the EBSCO HOST Academic Search Elite Research database yields no results. There is a noticeable lack of peer-reviewed journals or weighty research on the topic. Why? Is the research faulty? Jennifer Keeley, in a case study of the Appleton program sponsored by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, admits: “Clearly no scientifically sound conclusion may be drawn regarding the effects of the program on student behavior. Because we are relying solely on anecdotal descriptions by the staff who implemented the program, there exists a barrage of possible explanations for the perceived increase in better student behavior.” (Keeley 13) But isn’t this even more reason for professionals to step up and do proper research on such a tantalizing hypothesis? The results could only benefit our future.
If it turns out that the research is compelling, then could it be, as Cooper and Holmes assert, about money? Do schools profit from offering their students processed foods? Many think so. But consider the following examples:
At Folsom Cordova Unified School District in suburban Sacramento County, food service director Al Scheider overhauled his school lunch program, replacing profitable but unhealthy items with attractive, healthier options. As reported by Scott LaFee on the California School Boards Association website:
“The result has been, well, fulfilling. Cordova High School used to sell 125 entrees daily to 1,850 students; now it sells 800. Folsom High once sold a paltry 85 lunches each day to a student population of 2,000; now it sells 700 meals. And the food service division, which used to run $200,000 in the red each year, now has a $400,000 reserve and a newly increased budget. (LaFee, 1)”
In Enid Hohn’s San Diego program, “sales of healthier fare have proven to be quite robust. In the first year of operation, vending sales generated $187,000. The high school received almost $15,000 in commissions compared to $9,000 under the old contract with soda companies” (LaFee 1) She also states, “At this point in time I can confidently say that all goals have been met. The school has more money for programs, the students have access to healthier foods all day and the nutrition integrity of the Child Nutrition program has been restored.” (Hohn 1)
The Appleton story might have remained obscured in the circle of the health food community had it not been featured in the movie “Super Size Me,” an eye-opening documentary that has swept the nation. As the movie slowly raises public awareness, and even young people step forward demanding healthier food choices, I don’t think this theory can be ignored anymore.
Cooper and Holmes raise a point. “Maybe it’s not all about standardized testing and stricter lesson plans. Maybe all we need to do is change the food. Government talks big about “No Child Left Behind,” but if they continue to feed our children food that makes them crazy leaving them behind will be the least of our woes.” (1)
I think it’s a point worth pursuing.
Cooper, Ann. “About Chef Ann.” Healthy School Lunches – Chef Ann Cooper – Chef, Educator, Author, Consultant. 22 June 2005 http://www.chefann.com/html/about.html.
Cooper, Ann, and Lisa M. Holmes. “Lunch Lessons.” Healthy School Lunches – Chef Ann Cooper – Chef, Educator, Author, Consultant. 22 June 2005 http://www.chefann.com/html/press_media/articles/51_lunchlessons.html.
Hohn, Enid. “The Vending Challenge.” Healthy Vending. May 2002. Vista Unified School District. 22 June 2005 http://www.vusd.k12.ca.us/cns/healthyvending.htm.
Keeley, Jennifer. Case Study: Appleton Central Alternative Charter High School’s
Nutrition and Wellness Program. December 2004. Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. 22 June 2005 http://www.michaelfieldsaginst.org/Food%20Systems/ACACaseStudyFinalVersion.doc.
LaFee, Scott. “Healthy Choices. Healthy Budgets.” California Schools Magazine. California School Boards Association. 22 June 2005 http://www.csba.org/csmag/Summer2003/csMagStoryTemplate.cfm?id=21.
Roache, Christina, ed. “’Harvard Forums on Health’ Series Launches with Obesity Talk.” 11 July 2003. Harvard Public Health NOW. Office of Communications, Harvard School of Public Health. 22 June 2005 http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/now/jul11/.