Arguments continue to wage about how to provide the best educational environment for kids; teacher tenure reform, more STEM education, a shift to arts integrated education, Common Core State Standards―the list goes on. But one school district in California is proving that its own academic lynchpin turned out to be…food.
The Escondido Union High School District’s innovative school food program is being credited for higher attendance, improved academic performance and fewer incidents of illness among students since the program’s inception four years ago.
What makes it so unique is that EUHSD forgoes processed or pre-made foods in favor of meals that are made from scratch each day. New American Media reports that's no easy feat considering the district serves 10,000 daily meals, which include breakfast and lunch. And long before federal standards were handed down, EUHSD independently banned trans fats, cut down on dairy, limited salt and sugar and refocused plate space on fresh produce.
Pamela Lambert, the district’s nutritional services director, also insists on locally sourcing as much of her schools’ produce as possible, relying on farms within a 150-mile radius to ensure the food’s freshness and reduce the district’s carbon footprint.
Recently honored by the California Endowment for her commitment to student health, Lambert explained to New American that the motivation behind her plan was simple.
“How can we expect kids to excel academically if we feed them plastic foods?”
And to that end, how can we expect kids to excel academically if we let them go hungry? The food services at EUHSD aren’t just providing nutrition but are also serving as a buffer against childhood hunger as San Diego County is besieged by rampant unemployment and a poverty rate that hit a 30-year high last year. The Escondido district in particular serves some of the area’s poorest families.
Parke Troutman of the San Diego Hunger Coalition reported that healthy school meals like Escondido’s aren’t “just about filling stomachs, but the food has an impact on learning, health and behavior.”
Students seem to love it―whereas most California high school districts see about 20 percent of their students eating school meals, EUHSD boasts almost 80 percent of its students participating.
EUHSD exemplifies other innovative school-based food programs that focus on ways to bring sustainable and nutritious meals into lunchrooms. If more widely adopted, they can serve to head off what’s become an almost inevitable sentence of adulthood obesity for today's kids, but also serve to improve their cognitive functions more immediately. Numerous studies just like this recent one from the United States Department of Agriculture show the intellectual and developmental benefits of making sure students are not only fed with enough food, but with enough nutritious food.
And the proof is in the kids. As Patricia Lambert stated, “When I see higher attendance, better academic performance and fewer nurse visits, I am ecstatic.”
Have you fought for better school lunches in your own school district? Let us know about your experience in the Comments.