How School Food Affects Student Health - Upload Knowledge

The nutritional quality of school food affects students’ health, and therefore their energy levels and academic performance

Research is growing that connects the food students eat to childhood obesity, ADD, and academic achievement. A new study published in the Journal of School Health suggests that specific dietary factors affect academic performance. Students who generally eat less saturated fat, salt, and “empty calorie foods,” and instead more fruits, vegetables, and grains had higher average scores on academic assessments.

Many schools could significantly improve the amount and variety of healthy food choices for their students, and in turn make their students feel healthier and more motivated to learn. See Take Some Action for tips on how to make your school’s food healthier.

However, even schools who have already added a number of healthy, fresh options to their menu sometimes still have trouble getting kids to eat that way. According to researcher Ron Haskins from the Food Museum, “more than 80% of elementary schools and 90% of high schools offered food choices that would meet guidelines for fat and saturated fat intake if students selected the right foods to eat. But while you can lead students to good food, you can’t make them eat it.” Adults who love pizza and doughnuts can understand why students have a hard time making the right choices when just as many bad choices are offered to them. What if all the foods served in the school cafeteria were wholesome choices?

The reality in most schools is that pre-made, processed food is the cheapest way to go. Furthermore, where there is a lack of creativity and motivation to cultivate a healthy and sustainable menu, fast-food chains, junk-food vendors, and soda companies rush in to fill the void, offering partnerships with schools that allow them to market their products in schools. No wonder kids are motivated to make unhealthy food choices. Our Take Some Action Section points out some creative resources for inspiring students to not only choose healthier food, but to appreciate it!

What exactly are some of the healthier options for kids? This article, “Improving Children’s Academic Performance with Optimal Nutrition” lays out some of the healthy alternatives for breakfast, regular meals, and snacks!

Student health is also affected by the amount of pesticides in their food!

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of the primary sources of pesticide exposure to children comes from their food.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the average child in the United States between six and eleven years-old has four times the acceptable level of organophosphates in their body. Pesticides, such as organophosphates, have been linked to many negative health effects, including neurological disorders, reproductive problems, blood poisoning, and cancer. These effects are especially dangerous to children because of their smaller body size relative to exposure levels, and because their bodies are still developing. To learn more about pesticides, visit our Environmental Health Section.

So how does school food get pesticides in it in the first place? The Sustainable Table explains that the most direct way pesticides get into food is by being applied to produce. The fruits and vegetables with the highest concentration of pesticide residues are often the ones we eat the most, like apples, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. For a more complete list, visit the Environmental Working Group. The Sustainable Table explains that pesticides also accumulate in meat products. Many livestock farms apply pesticides directly to the skin, fur, or feathers of livestock. And even more significantly, grain eaten by livestock is often grown extensively with the use of pesticides. These pesticides accumulate in animal fat and are passed along to the people who eat the animals.

The good news is that many sustainable farms produce organic products with pesticides that are not chemically-laden. Instead, they use alternative, naturally-based pesticides or different pest treatment strategies including Integrated Pest Management. In Take Some Action and Go the Extra Mile, we’ll show you ways you can help your school buy from local sustainable farms or sign on with a distributor of organic products.

Did you know that even if your food does contain pesticides, your preparation and eating habits can make a difference in how much enters your body? The risk from fruits and vegetables is greatly reduced by washing them thoroughly or peeling them. The risk from meats and dairy products is reduced by eating less of the high fat items, because the fats are where pesticides accumulate the most in animals.

Student health could be affected by genetically-modified food

But first, what is genetically modified food?
Genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered food (GE) is food that has been produced by recombinant DNA technology, a technology where genes from different organisms are mixed. They are grown to increase farmers’ productivity and sometimes for perceived benefits to consumers, for example, by adding a vitamin or making food last longer on the shelf.

How prevalent is GM food in our food supply? According to the Global Healing Center, 60 to 70% of the processed foods in the U.S. market are genetically modified, and in 2006, 135 million acres of U.S. cropland was cultivated with genetically modified crops. Many of our most frequently consumed foods are genetically modified, such as sugar, soy beans, corn, potatoes, and many vegetables and fruits.

So, what are the possible negative human health effects? Many of the potential health effects of genetically modified foods are unknown because the industry is relatively young and opponents say not enough testing has been done. However, the Center for Food Safety claims that health effects may include allergenicity, higher risks of toxicity, immune-suppression, resistance to antibiotics, and even cancer.

Other organizations like the WHO narrow the potential health effects to three specific concerns: allergic reactions, the effects of dangerous gene alterations, and outcrossing.

The concern with allergic reactions is that altering genes in crops may result in unintended allergic reactions to consumers who eat those crops. The Sustainable Table explains that this could happen in two ways. First, the genes of known allergens could be inserted into other foods and consumers could eat those foods unaware that they may experience an allergic reaction. The WHO states that this is why allergy-causing foods are generally discouraged from being used for the transfer of genes. But, the Sustainable Table points out that there is also cause to be concerned with the possibility of completely new sources of allergies being formed by mixing genes.

The WHO states that a second major health concern is with gene alteration. One danger could be the transfer of genes from genetically modified foods to the cells of the human body, according to The Sustainable Table. We don’t know if eating mutated food may affect our own DNA. WHO cites a different genetic concern based on the effect of antibiotic resistance markers used in GM food production. These marker genes are inserted into the host plant and this transfer could make local bacteria more resistant to antibiotics creating the potential for the spread of disease according to the Sustainable Table.

A third major issue is the effect of outcrossing, which is the transfer of genes from GM plants to non-GM plants or wild species. The potential health effects of this occur when a variety of plant not approved for human consumption mixes with plants that are intended for human consumption, as was the case with some varieties of maize in the United States.

Are there other potential effects of GM foods besides human health effects? There are indeed other effects, especially environmental effects, and in fact, most of these effects are a more substantial concern of opponents than potential human health consequences. See our effects on the environment section for more on this!

How can we tell if the food in our school is genetically modified food? In the United States, it’s difficult to tell if the food you’re buying is genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients because unless the product has the threat of an allergic reaction, the USDA does not require labeling it a GM product.

See Take Some Action for tips on how to avoid GM foods.