by Dena Goldstein, Grants and Planning Associate
Bite-size fruit snacks, squishy Capri Sun juice packs and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes all fall under the category of delicious, “kid-friendly” foods that kids love. They are also utterly lacking in nutritional value. Typically high in sugar, salt and/or unhealthy fats, these pseudo-snacks and meals lure kids in with toys, animated mascots and easy-to-open packaging. In our fast-paced world, kids, parents and schools are often drawn to processed foods—they are fairly inexpensive; accessible at convenient stores, vending machines and gas stations; and don’t require time to make. Added to the dearth of nutrition in their snacks, children are also leading more sedentary lifestyles. On average, kids spend over seven hours in front of a computer or TV screen every day. Poor food choices coupled with minimal physical activity not only affect their physical health, but also academic success.
In fact, lack of adequate consumption of fruits, vegetables or dairy products is correlated with lower grades among students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report, “Healthy and Academic Achievement.” In addition, nutrient deficiencies among children are associated with higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness. Kids are more likely to repeat a grade and maintain an inability to focus when they experience hunger because of lack of access to food.
“If someone is hungry they are going to focus their attention on getting food not the assignments that need to be done,” said Jennifer Roesch, a teacher at the Therapeutic Day School of Jewish Child & Family Services. “When people have access to and consume healthy foods they are more likely to pay attention, be more active in the learning process and be nice to one another.”
Physical activity also plays a major role in academic achievement, as exercise influences brain function in pre-adolescent children, according to a study conducted by Charles Hillman, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The researchers learned that moderate activity increased brain activity. According to Hillman, “physical activity will help kids learn better.”
“Healthy kids learn better,” is the mantra of Action for Healthy Kids, a grassroots organization that helps schools create a prime environment for learning. With Action for Healthy Kids’ Every Kid Healthy Week upon us (April 19-25), there’s no better time to acknowledge how school health initiatives impact students’ academic outcomes. When schools like the Therapeutic Day School create conducive spaces for learning with access to healthy food and time for physical activity, students enjoy optimum conditions to succeed academically.
Students consume half their calories at school. The Therapeutic Day School at Jewish Child & Family Services provides breakfast and lunch as well as items for purchase from the mobile school store. Providing meals for students is vital as students who eat school breakfast attend 1.5 more days of school per year and score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests, according to the Action for Healthy Kids study, “The Learning Connection: What you Need to Know to Ensure Your Kids are Healthy and Ready to Learn.”
TDS acknowledges that if students are given the choice, they will most likely choose sugary and processed foods, soda and fast food. To address this issue, TDS staff limits students’ options at school to only healthy foods that are high in protein and contain low amounts of sugar, including oatmeal, protein or granola bars, fruit, soup and bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Roesch’s goal is to cook meals weekly and offer hard boiled eggs and berry smoothies with avocado on a monthly basis.
The Therapeutic Day School also understands the influence physical activity has on academic achievement. Schools that provide recess and physical activity breaks during classes and physical education courses often enjoy positive results: students improve cognitive performance such as attention and concentration, reading literacy and math fluency scores. Students have P.E. class every day, and a number of the elementary classrooms offer recess frequently, if not every day— weather permitting. Roesch, who provides instruction to students aged 9-13, carves out time in the schedule for the kids to go outside and play at the school park.
“They need time outside to run around and get rid of their energy,” said Roesch. “The longer a student has to sit still without any breaks, the more likely they will have a crisis later in the day. Children need to move around!”