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Food for Thought: Helping Students Make Healthier Choices

By Clare McDermott
Food for Thought: Helping Students Make Healthier Choices

I am channeling Oliver Twist as I walk through the food court during lunchtime. Of course, none of my students are looking up at me with pathetic, hungry eyes, asking for more. It’s not the lack of options, but the overwhelming selection that has that song running through my brain.
The students are freely slurping noodle soup, or stir fried chicken and vegetables. At least that is what I like to think they are buying. In reality, some chose sushi while many others chose frozen yogurt or chips and a sports drink. This school is not unusual: anywhere in the world, when children (or adults for that matter) are given choice, they often choose poorly.
In the past, I did not worry about what the students ate during the school day. I listened to teachers tell their classes that only healthy snacks were allowed and I watched as students skipped the hot lunch in favor of a sweet or salty snack. I kept my mouth shut and encouraged all my students to eat … something.
Making healthy food choices cannot be mandated. Eating is the one thing that an individual has total control over—from a three-year-old throwing a tantrum because the toast is not cut in triangles, to a teen or pre-teen refusing to eat a meal as a weight-control measure. You cannot force the issue; it only makes it worse.
But now, I think differently. I see behaviors that are less than ideal and habits that will be difficult to break as time goes on. I want to nudge students towards health.
For my doctoral dissertation, I attempted to quantify both student consumption of food at lunch and its impact on their achievement. Quantifying separately was easy. I observed students during morning break and lunch and noted their food choices. Then I analyzed the change in their standardized test scores for math, reading, and language arts (NWEA MAP tests) and compared test results to foods chosen at school.
This part got rather complicated, as there were numerous variables. While results were not as clear-cut as I had hoped, a few very interesting correlations did surface. One positive correlation was that students who did not eat junk food at lunch had greater growth from fall to spring on their standardized reading test. Alas, students who skipped fruit during school day had significantly more growth in math than students who ate fruit. The results were contrary and/or inconclusive, not the earth shattering, soon-to-go-viral ending I had hoped for. Nevertheless, for me they were very interesting and opened a new avenue of research.
In the very brief explanation of the results, you may have noticed that different subjects were impacted by the diet. Research suggested that a combination of healthy and unhealthy behaviors, during the school day and outside of school, was significantly correlated with certain indicators of academic achievement. However, in my small study, no single variable showed a consistent positive or negative relationship with more than one indicator of academic achievement.
Having conflicting results in research is fairly common, particularly in a new area of investigation or when looking at a problem from a different perspective. For example, there have been seemingly contradictory results with regards to breakfast and achievement. While eating breakfast has a positive impact on achievement, there has been significant disagreement about what foods are best. It is important to note that meals at school have had a significant impact on the academic achievement of undernourished students, which was not the population I observed.
My goal was to try to establish a link between what students eat with how well they perform over time. While I did not achieve that goal, the research has made me realize that we need to look more closely at the food we provide and the choices students make at our schools. I think that it could make a difference in the educational experience of our children and I wonder what results could be if students made healthier food choices every day. I suggest a few steps to take to assess students, mealtime, and the need for change.
First, take a good long look at your students; what are they eating? Why? Are they happy with their choices? How busy is the salad bar? How many are lined up for sweet treats? How many home lunches are brought out? Then look at yourself and your colleagues. What do the adults choose? Is it really different from what the students are choosing? Finally, spend more time with your students. Sit with them at lunch, set a good example, and have open, nonjudgmental conversations about food. Open your eyes and start really seeing what’s cooking on your campus.
Clare McDermott is a Middle School Math Teacher at Ruamrudee International School in Bangkok.

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