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Weighing Healthier Options

If Johnny can't read, maybe he's hungry
by Linda Dawson
Illinois School Board Journal, July/August 2004

Linda Dawson is IASB director of editorial services and Journal editor.

Weighing Healthier Options

Districts looking for ways to raise student achievement may want to look more closely at their school breakfast and lunch programs. If students can't read or have difficulty with math, a contributing factor may be poor nutrition.

Numerous national and international studies have established a link between poor nutrition and the ability of children to retain information, as well as perform their best on tests. Consider these findings:

  • "Among fourth-grade students, those having the lowest amount of protein in their diet had the lowest achievement scores." (School Board Food Service Research Review, 1989)
  • "Children who suffer from poor nutrition during the brain's most formative years score much lower on tests of vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic and general knowledge." (Scientific American, 1996)
  • "High energy intake from breakfast had a beneficial effect on immediate recall in short term memory." (Journal of Adolescence Health, 1991)
  • "Teachers reported higher levels of hyperactivity, absenteeism and tardiness among hungry/at risk children than not hungry children." (Journal of American Academic Child Adolescence Psychiatry, 1998)
  • Average math scores were lower for children with iron deficiency, with and without anemia, compared with children with normal iron status." (Pediatrics, 2001)
  • "Six months after the start of the free school breakfast programs, students who decreased their nutritional risk showed significantly greater improvements in attendance and school breakfast participation, decreases in hunger, and improvements in math grades and behavior ... ." (Annals of Nutrition Metabolism, 2002)
  • "Six- to 11-year-old children from food-insufficient families had significantly lower arithmetic scores and were more likely to have repeated a grade." (Pediatrics, 2001)

While the biggest concern lies with children from poverty who may not have enough to eat at home, children from all income levels can be at risk from poor nutrition, according to Sigrid Quendler of Vienna ( Austria) University. "Even moderate under-nutrition ... can have lasting effects and compromise cognitive development and school performance," she wrote in "Link Between Nutrition, Physical Activity and Academic Achievement" in 2002.

Although the studies cited are fairly recent, the link between student nutrition and learning has been noted for at least 100 years. In 1904, Robert Hunter wrote in his book, "Poverty," "... learning is difficult because hungry stomachs and languid bodies and thin blood are not able to feed the brain. The lack of learning among so many poor children is certainly due, to an important extent, to this cause. There must be thousands - very likely sixty or seventy thousand children - in New York City alone who often arrive at school hungry and unfitted to do well the work required."

School-provided meals - sometimes for as little as 3 cents in the early 1920s - were hit-and-miss until the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was adopted under President Harry Truman in 1946. It took another 20 years before the federal government began its School Breakfast Program as a pilot project in 1966. School breakfast became a permanent program in 1975.

According to the USDA, which administers both programs, schools receive cash subsidies for participation, as long as they follow federal nutrition guidelines. But as with the NSLP, participation at most schools is voluntary. (For more on NSLP, see "School nutrition rules, regulations" in the March/April issue at .)

More recently, however, studies that link a good breakfast with increased student achievement have been the impetus for universal,  free  breakfast programs.

A pioneering program in Maryland, known as Meals for Achievement, reports "strong results." At the 2002 Healthy School Summit in Washington, D.C., Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent of schools, said that schools participating in the universal, free breakfast program for three years had shown gains of 7.8 percentage points on state tests. Schools with the program two years showed 3.5 percentage point gains. But students in control groups within the same districts, however, had dropped 1.8 percentage points on state tests.

Similar free breakfast programs have been operating on a pilot basis in Illinois since 2001. In universal, free programs, all students are served breakfast at school, some even in the classroom. Currently 56 schools in 11 public school districts, one Lutheran school and the Christian/Montgomery Regional Office of Education participate in Illinois' universal, free breakfast program, according to ISBE.

Springfield SD 186 is one of those 11 public districts, with four elementary schools in the original Illinois pilot: Harvand Park, Matheny, McLernand and Wanless. And D-186 has added five additional schools to its list since the original pilots were selected.

Wanless principal Anne Morris has seen the difference universal, free breakfast can make at her school. Even without hard data, she knows they see fewer students complaining of headaches in the morning ... headaches attributed to hunger and low blood sugar from lack of food.

Wanless is on the Academic Watch List, Morris said, but student scores are rising. Eating breakfast at school, when coupled with better professional development for teachers, may be a contributing factor, she added.

"We can't prove it, but we all know kids do better with food in their tummies," Morris said. "I'm sure the food contributes to the kids learning."

And, Morris said, helping students learn good nutrition "is just one more way to show kids we care about them."

While some students still prefer to eat breakfast at home, between 100 and 150 students eat breakfast at Wanless every day. They're fed in the cafeteria, some eating quickly so they can have playground time before school starts. If students are running late and miss breakfast, Morris said, the cafeteria staff is always good about keeping something back so that students can still get something to eat.

Having universal, free breakfast is often a pleasant surprise for parents, especially new families who don't qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Morris said. "I hope it doesn't ever go away."


K. Alaimo, C.M. Olson and E.A. Frongillo Jr., "Food insufficiency and American school-aged children's cognitive, academic and psychosocial development,"  Pediatrics, 2001

American School Food Service Association, "Impact of hunger and malnutrition on student achievement,  School Board Food Service Research Review, 1989

L. Brown and E. Pollitt, "Malnutrition, poverty and intellectual development,"  Scientific American, 1996

Nancy Grasmick, "Improving Academic Performance - An Educator's Perspective," Healthy Schools Summit, Washington, D.C., 2002

J.S. Halterman, et al., "Iron deficiency and cognitive achievement among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States,"  Pediatrics, 2001

R.E. Kleinman, et al., "Diet, breakfast and academic performance in children,"  Annals of Nutrition Metabolism, 2002

C. Michaud, et al., "Effects of breakfast size on short term memory, concentration, mood and blood glucose,"  Journal of Adolescence Health, 2001

J.M. Murphy, et al., "Relationship between hunger and psychosocial functioning in low income American children,"  Journal of American Academic Child Adolescence Psychiatry, 1998

The National School Lunch Program Background and Development,

Sigrid Quendler, "Link Between Nutrition, Physical Activity and Academic Achievement," Vienna University, Austria, August 2002

New legislation would expand breakfast program

The school breakfast program in Illinois could expand under a bill pending in the state Senate and already approved by the House. (For current status, go to

SB1400 requires districts to offer breakfast in any school where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. According to Ben Schwarm, IASB associate executive director of governmental relations, the bill would affect 317 districts in the state, based on current lunch counts, and could cost as much as $6 million.

While the Association usually opposes legislation asking districts to spend money on programs that may not be fully funded by the state, compromises to the bill made it more palatable, and the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance withdrew its opposition.

"No one can argue with wanting children to have good nutrition or making certain they have something to eat if they're hungry," Schwarm said. But the Association does have a problem with mandated programs that do not come with sufficient funding.

Proponents had argued that reimbursements would cover the cost, he said, but those reimbursements originally only covered the cost of the food. Districts would incur additional costs for transportation - especially if the school had food preparation off-site or bused students to another site for lunch programs - as well as with additional hours for food service personnel and student supervision.

IASB removed its opposition to the bill for two reasons, Schwarm said. First, a provision has been added that allows reimbursement for transportation, food service and supervisory costs, in addition to the actual cost of what is served. Second, a provision was added to allow districts to opt out of the program through a waiver process. Any district that can make a case that costs would be prohibitive to implement a breakfast program can petition its regional office of education. This would apply especially to those schools that do not have kitchen facilities on the premises or those who already bus or walk students to another location for lunch.

Weighing Healthier Options



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