The Importance of Nutritional Programs in Schools

The Importance of Nutritional Programs in Schools

Nutrition is one of the most important things we can teach kids inside and outside of the home. Understanding how to make healthy food choices that nourish the body and mind, provide energy for activities, and taste delicious is a skill that serves children for life. Unfortunately, regardless of what exposure kids have at home, nutritional programs in schools is lacking.  

Statistics show that between 2017 and 2020, the prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States was 19.7% and affected around 14.7 million children and adolescents. Making nutrition education accessible for kids has never been more important for the present and the future — and schools play a critical role. 

lunch tray with burger, cookies, fries

The Current State of Nutrition in Schools

Nutrition in schools presents a multifaceted challenge as many kids experience significant challenges when it comes to healthy eating. There have been efforts to improve school nutrition programs over the years. However, there are many factors contributing to why it still has a long way to go and why so many kids struggle with nutrition. These include: 

  • Limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables in some areas
  • Pervasive advertising of ultra-processed foods that are high in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars that target kids
  • High availability of ultra-processed foods in school cafeterias
  • Food politics making it difficult to make substantial changes to school nutrition programs
  • Socioeconomic disparities that affect the cost of food and accessibility at home

When all of these things culminate, we’re left with a concerning number of children who are malnourished, overweight, or both. Poor nutrition has detrimental effects not only on the physical health and abilities of kids, but also on their cognitive development, academic performance, and mental and behavioral health. 

fruits and vegetables spread across a black table

Why Nutrition Programs in Schools Matter

Promoting Healthy Eating Habits

Promoting healthy eating habits in schools involves educating students about the importance of balanced diets and making food choices that support their well-being. Through more intentional nutrition programs at school, students learn to make informed choices about what they’re eating. 

While vegetables are often shunned by kids at home, schools could take the opportunity to be an external influence on the benefits of eating them and how to prepare them in tasty ways. By the same token, it’s a huge opportunity to educate kids about what ultra-processed foods are and why they should be limited. 

Addressing Gaps in Nutrition

Many students face nutritional shortfalls and deficiencies as a result of their poor dietary habits and may be unaware of the association. Schools have a unique opportunity to help bridge some of the gaps by providing healthier lunch and snack options. 

Cafeteria options that not only help provide essential nutrients, including an array of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, as well as cater to various dietary restrictions and allergies, could make a huge improvement in the lives of students. This is especially true for kids who don’t have access to a healthy food landscape at home and rely on school meal programs for breakfast and lunch. 

Supporting Academic Achievement

There’s a strong correlation between poor nutrition and worsened behavioral health and academic outcomes among children. Offering nutrition education programs and improving the quality of food available at schools could be key to improving academic achievement. 

For instance, think about how you feel 30 minutes after eating highly processed snack foods for lunch (say, a bag of chips and a chocolate chip muffin) versus a meal that provides a balance of fiber, healthy fats, and protein. Kids who are well-nourished are better able to concentrate, remember information, and participate in class. 

Fostering Long-Term Health and Wellness

While making nutrition education a priority in schools could be extremely impactful now, it’s also important to emphasize improving the health of children long-term. After all, the habits we form as kids are more likely to stick with us for life—and nutrition is critical. 

By helping kids understand the impacts of their food choices on their bodies, minds, and overall health, we can also give them the tools to take action. This can help address the childhood obesity epidemic. It also reduces the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, supporting health for years to come. 

schoolyard garden boxes with plants growing

How to Do It

As for where to start, here are some opportunities for nutrition education and support in schools: 

  • Emphasizing healthy and tasty food options in school cafeterias
  • Building interactive school/community gardens where students plant, grow, and harvest crops themselves
  • Teaching farm-to-table cooking classes
  • Making nutrition education a core class versus a short one-time lesson during the school year
  • Creating opportunities for kids to participate in suggesting healthier changes to school menus or participating in efforts to improve offerings
  • Sponsoring dietitian-led activities in the classroom 

There’s work to do, but there’s also incentive. Even starting with smaller changes could make big impacts on a local level and on children’s long-term health. 

The Importance of Nutritional Programs in Schools text with picture of lunch trays with food

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