Here are five things you might not know about the real face of school food in the Commonwealth and the critical role school food service professionals play.
Project Bread is passionate about creating and advancing school meals programs that give kids daily access to appealing, healthy food—and by extension, providing them the energy and focus they need to excel in their classrooms, and beyond. If you’re picturing a “lunch lady” with a scowl, or bored students lined up with frowns, or a colorless tray of…well, you’re out of step with the times, and you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Here are five things you might not know about the real face of school food in the Commonwealth and the critical role school food service professionals play:
1) School food protects our most vulnerable children against hunger
Because low-income children rely on school meals for more than half of their daily nutrients and calories, these meals need to be of highest nutritional quality—and we believe that’s what our kids deserve.
“Healthy school food is one important way to mitigate the bad outcomes associated with child poverty,” says Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread. “It’s a chance to stack the odds in favor of the children.”
2) There is no stigma in how school meals are provided each day
None of us should feel shame when we need something to eat. Children are so sensitive to being different that shame or embarrassment often prevents them from accepting help. Universal school meals provide food to those who need it most…without the perceived stigma of a “hand-out.”
To make broad participation possible, the Columbus Elementary School in Medford worked with Project Bread and other local organizations to adopt a simple “Breakfast in the Classroom” pilot program as an eat-in-classroom solution…a shift that makes it much easier for children to be part of the crowd and enjoy their breakfast.
“The program works well. We have more kids eating and our participation rates have increased,” says Dominica Nichols, the Medford Public School’s Nutrition Specialist consultant. “Many teachers have reported a calmer atmosphere in the morning, and better concentration on morning lessons. As an added bonus, breakfast is also now a more financially sustainable program.”
Within the structure of the new program, kids take about ten to fifteen minutes to eat during morning activities, such as morning announcements or attendance, or while they’re engaged in individual reading time—so no instructional learning time is lost. In this model, the majority of children participate, so no student stands out as different. Project Bread’s Child Nutrition Outreach Program is working hard right now to encourage the implementation of this system in more schools around the state.
By effectively integrating school meals into a student’s morning and afternoon, we can effectively advance systemic change and eliminate the stigma attached to hunger itself.
3) School meals are an opportunity to teach lifelong healthy eating habits
Project Bread uses delicious and healthy lunches to help kids develop a taste for fresh, nutritious food—and head off a habit of eating processed food that’s high in fat, salt, and sugar. Once children are introduced to healthier foods— and become interested in eating them consistently—students are far more likely to maintain these healthy eating habits, and, as a result, be healthier overall.
In a joint research study with the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009, we used extensive data to back up our contention that children will eat healthy school meals—and eat more vegetables—if they are prepared in a tasty, visually appealing way.
“By combining better recipes with fresh ingredients, the meals undoubtedly become more appealing to children,” says Chef Guy, one of Project Bread’s chefs. “Getting children involved in the cooking process can also be a beneficial tool in encouraging kids to try new tastes.”
By introducing children to a wide range of healthy options during the thirteen years they spend in school, Project Bread sees an opportunity to affect a child’s health for years to come…even through to adulthood.
4) School meals have a direct impact on children's health
School meals not only have the potential to affect a student’s lifelong eating habits, but also to have an immediate impact on their health, day-to-day.
When children are hungry, they are more likely to get sick, to recover more slowly from illnesses and injury, and tend to be hospitalized more frequently. They don’t “catch up” as easily after common childhood illnesses, and their bodies simply aren’t able to grow to their fullest potential. They are also more susceptible to a range of illnesses—ear infections, iron deficiency, asthma, cardiovascular disease—and more likely to suffer from food-related health issues, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Project Bread works hard to drive full enrollment of low-income children in federal nutrition programs, such as the School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, and the Summer Food Service Program, all with the goal of heading off these negative health impacts.
5) Meeting all children's nutritional needs bolsters learning... and much more
Children are better equipped to both function and learn if good nutrition is part of their day. A significant number of studies, including a 2002 research study conducted by Project Bread, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, show that children who eat a good breakfast every day learn better, behave better, and perform better in class than children who struggle with hunger.
In fact, students who eat school breakfast regularly have been found to have higher math grades, fewer instances of absenteeism or tardiness, and fewer emotional and behavioral problems in the classroom. That’s a powerful clue to the importance of nutrition in our psychological wellbeing, too.
According to Share Our Strength, nine out of ten teachers say having a healthy breakfast is key to academic achievement. The same report shows an average 17.5% increase in standardized math scores from students who consistently start their day with a healthy meal. Clearly, children need to be both full and healthy to learn and grow to their utmost potential.
With such an important set of results at stake—the lives and futures of our children—it’s no wonder our entire team at Project Bread is passionate about school food and connecting our kids with the best, most healthy meals possible, complete with local ingredients.
We believe we’ll see the impact of our work as this generation grows up healthy and strong while we continue our work to eradicate hunger across Massachusetts.