Philadelphia’s “Eat Right Philly” program uses interactive lessons and tastings to teach students healthful diets, while in California, public schools provide cooking classes and food labs for students to develop skills that can benefit them throughout their whole life. In Virginia, high school students from Loudoun County public schools are taught by their nutrition educators how to control food portions. These are just a few examples of how some schools are teaching students about nutrition and healthy eating.

Nutrition education programs provide students with accurate messages about good nutrition and empower them with knowledge and skills to make healthy food and beverage choices. Successful nutrition education uses a systematic approach and strategies that include a variety of activities to help students to habitually choose nutritious food and change unhealthy behaviors.

The U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of obesity among adults and children. Two out of three American adults are either overweight or obese. More than 23 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese or overweight. Obese children and adolescents are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes) than are other children and adolescents, and these problems often persist into adulthood.

According to the data from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System:

  • Approximately 15 percent of high school students suffered from obesity and an additional 16 percent were overweight;
  • State obesity rates among high school students ranged from a low of 9.5 percent in Colorado to a high of 21.7 percent in Arkansas, with a median of 14.2 percent;
  • Mexican-American children are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white or non- Hispanic black children; and
  • Non-Hispanic black girls are more likely to be obese or overweight than non-Hispanic white or Mexican-American girls.

Nutrition education benefits every student, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. The goal of nutrition education is to help students have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to make healthy food and physical activity choices as part of a healthy lifestyle. When students are empowered with knowledge and skills of a healthy lifestyle, they will influence their parents and the community where they live.

Nutrition topics 

Nutrition and dietary behavior topics taught in a required course include choosing healthful foods, food safety, and behaviors that contribute to maintaining a healthy weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • More than half of the states (55 percent) and more than half of large urban school districts (57 percent) taught 20 nutrition and dietary behavior topics. In most states, over 90 percent of secondary schools taught students about the benefits of (a) healthy eating, drinking plenty of water, eating breakfast every day, eating more fruits and vegetables, and (b) balancing food intake and physical activity.
  • However, in some large urban school districts, such as Oakland, California, and Cleveland, Ohio, only one-third of secondary schools reported that teachers taught those nutrition and dietary behavior topics in a required course.

Federal funding

From 1970 to 2017, federal on-budget funds for child nutrition programs have increased substantially. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, child nutrition programs include the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Milk Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and Team Nutrition.

Team Nutrition involves nutrition education for children and their caregivers, and school and community support to promote healthy eating and physical activity. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that in the past 50 years, federal funds for child nutrition programs:

  • Increased from 3 percent to 10 percent in the total federal on-budget funds for education;
  • Increased from 7 percent to 28 percent in the total federal on-budget funds for elementary and secondary education; and
  • Increased from 50 percent to 95 percent in the total federal on-budget funds from USDA.

In general, public schools receive more money from the federal government for child nutrition programs than for Title I educational programs. In the 2014-15 school year, 28 percent of the money received from the federal government came from the Child Nutrition Act, whereas 25 percent came from Title I, the financial assistance from the federal government to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic content and student academic achievement standards.

Considerations

A large portion of federal funds for child nutrition programs are spent on food services, such as school lunch and breakfast programs. While ending hunger is crucial, educating students to develop a healthy lifestyle can bring students lifelong benefit. To deliver well-designed and effectively implemented nutrition education programs, school leaders may consider the following aspects:

  1. Dosage — A minimum of 50 hours of nutrition education per school year is believed to be necessary to have an impact on students, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  2. Professional development — Teachers and other school staff should be provided with time and opportunities to learn how to embed nutrition education curricula in their classroom work.
  3. Free online resources — USDA provides free curriculum materials for school nutrition education, such as Team Nutrition Resource Catalog, Healthy Eating with MyPlate.

Making healthy food choices is a real- life skill that students should develop to help them be healthy and successful in the future.

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