Kids, Food, and Learning: Connecting the Dots Between Nutrition and Academics

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At Seville Elementary in the Cloverleaf school district south of Cleveland, bright bags of Skittles candy no longer beckon to students from the end of the lunch line. M&M's and Reese's Peanut Butter cups have similarly disappeared. While it can be risky taking kids' candy, Corinne Schoenbeck, cafeteria manager at Seville, says the school's 500 or so 3rd and 4th graders have remained calm, and are actually adapting well.

Corinne Schoenbeck: They have money, they want something, be it a drink or a snack, and they purchase pretty much whatever we have.

On a pre-Super Bowl Friday, their choices include four kinds of pizza; corn, trail mix, fruit salad; pudding cups; milk; and an array of snacks.

Posted behind the cashier are lists that rate various snacks on their relative nutritional value. Kids can easily see, for example, that baked chips are a better snack choice than regular ones; that graham crackers are preferable to cookies. Seville is implementing a formula this year to reduce its not-so-nutritious snack offerings to 20%, while boosting the more nutritional ones to 80%. What that means, says Schoenbeck, is:

Corinne Schoenbeck: Less sugar, less fat, less salt.

But is good nutrition simply a matter of removing nutritionally suspect foods - an exercise in subtraction? Not necessarily. At Cleveland's Orchard Elementary School, they're adding to the menu.

Brianna Ferguson: I eat carrots, I eat salad, and I eat grapes.

Second grader Brianna Ferguson, like the rest of Orchard's students, gets fruit and vegetable snacks delivered to her desk every day. And her teacher, Joanne Teichman, incorporates the eating of those fruits and veggies right into her lesson plans.

Joanne Teichman: We've always talked about it, it's one of our standards in our health program. However, having the things there, and tasting them has made a world of difference. It's brought it to life for them.

The federally funded snack program began at Orchard two years ago, so most of Teichman's 2nd graders have known it since kindergarten. They don't express strong feelings about the program; it's just a part of the daily life of their school. But they're quite ready to comment on the produce they've tried. After Brianna Ferguson ticks off a laundry list of fruit and veggie snacks she likes, she moves on to what she doesn't like.

Brianna Ferguson: The peas, the little circles. I don't eat those. (No?) When I chewed one, they were nasty.

Teichman says that while she strongly encourages kids to try everything, they aren't required to eat anything. Not the tomatoes, which by informal survey seem extremely unpopular. Not the cucumber slices, the bosc pears, or the kiwi fruit. Still, there's evidence that such programs are effective, according to Alicia Moag-Stahlberg. She's executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, or AFHK, a national nonprofit with chapters in every state.

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg: By introducing kids to more good-tasting, fresh fruits and vegetables, they in fact were eating it, and at least for the period that we were monitoring, it did increase their fruit and vegetable intake.

Still, says Moag-Stahlberg, kids who get the right balance of nutrients, of protein, of key vitamins and minerals, are in the minority. And that doesn't bode well for the rest, according to AFHK. The group cites studies showing that when kids don't get required nutrients, their cognitive function drops - and they're more frequently tardy or absent. But schools can turn this around, says Moag-Stahlberg, and they don't need a fruit and veggie program to do it.

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg: Kids who eat a good breakfast are going to perform better in school that day.

By introducing school breakfast, or broadening its reach, research shows schools can increase test scores and attendance - while cutting tardiness, absenteeism, even disruptive behavior. Increasing participation in school breakfast across the state is one major goal of the Ohio chapter of Action for Healthy Kids. And it is on the rise. In Cuyahoga County alone, 206 schools offered breakfast last year, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Thirteen of them - over 6% - were new. The ODE is awarding cash incentives to schools that significantly increase the number of breakfasts they serve.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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