This is Your Brain ... on Fruits and Veggies
Picture this: you start your day off with some fruit, drink lots of
water, and make sure you get some greens during the course of the day.
Feel good? Now imagine this: you grab a donut with coffee, eat fries
for lunch and munch on some chips while thinking about dinner. How do
you feel now?
Many of us recognize the link between the food we eat and how our bodies feel, but how many of us draw connections between our diets and how well our brains function?
Antonia Demas, who has a Ph.D. in education, nutrition, and
anthropology from Cornell University, has made it her life's work to
draw the link between what kids eat and how well they are able to
learn. Founder and president of the Food Studies Institute in
Trumansburg, NY, Demas's Food is Elementary: A Hands-on Curriculum for Young Students,
integrates academic disciplines with food, nutrition, culture, and the
arts. It is also being used in some 600 schools around the country,
including at the Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school in
Baltimore, where Ariel Demas, Antonia's daughter, will teach the
program again this Fall.
Dr. Demas has been a vegetarian since she was 14,
and has spent about 3/4 of her life developing food-based curricula and
teaching people of all ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic
backgrounds in various settings. Her story is compelling, both as a
testament to how one person can effect change, and as a reminder about
how much nutrition affects not only our health, but our learning
capacity. Veggilicious spoke with Antonia Demas by phone one Friday
afternoon in July, and with Ariel Demas in August at Liquid Earth, a
vegetarian restaurant in Baltimore.
The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs
The majority of children in the United States, Dr. Demas explained, aren't getting adequate nutrition, despite federal programs to address child nutrition through school meal programs. In fact, it is precisely the kind of food that is now often distributed through these programs - and the lack of nutrition education that would encourage student acceptance of unfamiliar, healthier food options - that contributes to children's nutritional deficiency.
Established under the National School Lunch Act, which President Harry
Truman signed into law in 1946, the National School Lunch Program was
intended "to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's
children." It's goal: "to encourage the domestic consumption of
nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the
States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate
supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance,
operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs."i
In the beginning, many administrators and teachers believed that the NSLP was a government ruse to pawn off agricultural surplus. However, teachers had long noted that students cannot learn if they are hungry all of the time. Studies also show a positive link between nutrition and child behavior and cognitive development, and the nutritional intake provided under NSLP far exceeded what some students had been receiving before its implementation. NSLP has been expanded since its founding to include reimbursement for snacks served to children in after- school and enrichment programs, and it has been extended to children through 18 years of age. Widespread poverty throughout the country prompted the establishment of the School Breakfast Program in 1966 as a two-year pilot project that was extended every year until 1975, when it was permanently authorized by Congress.ii Both programs are supplemented by the Summer Food Service Program, launched in 1968 and also made permanent in 1975. iii
Children from families with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free lunches; those from families with incomes between 130 to 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced priced meals. According to the federal government, 130 percent of the poverty level is $24,505 annual income for a family of four; 185 percent is $34,873.iv
one in ten children participates in the school breakfast program, and
more than 28.4 million children in 98,000 schools and residential child
care institutions participated in the NSLP during the 2003-04 school
year, with 58 percent of these children receiving free or reduced price
lunches. By all accounts, those numbers will only increase in the
future. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the
number of children living in low-income families is on the rise in the
United States, with 37 percent of American children - more than 26
million - living in low-income families in 2002.v
Since many of these children receive two-thirds to 100 percent of their
daily nutrition from school meals under the NSLP, Dr. Demas and others
are concerned that the program is not meeting children's nutritional
Filling versus Feeding the Body and Mind
the program, school lunches must meet recommendations of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which were
revised as recently as early 2005 (see "Guidelines" under Veggie
Facts). However, according to the USDA's own School Nutrition and
Dietary Assessment Study, published in 2001, many of the nation's
school districts did not meet basic nutritional requirements, although
the study concluded that schools were on track to meet standards by
Critics of the national school food programs go further. Citing rising
childhood obesity rates as evidence of the failure of the program to
meet its own stated goals, DC-based Physicians Committee for
Responsible Medicine believes that even the USDA requirements are
inadequate, partly because they downplay the fact that plant-based
meals and menu choices are crucial for health. According to PCRM,
“every year, the USDA buys hundreds of millions of pounds of excess
beef, pork, milk, and other meat and dairy products to bolster sagging
prices in the livestock industry. These high-fat, high-cholesterol
products are then distributed at very low cost to the NSLP, where they
fuel many children’s life-long struggle against obesity and heart
School food service directors and dietitians acknowledge deficiencies while also citing their own efforts to address nutritional shortcomings in school meals. For instance, according to a 2005 study by the School Nutrition Association, previously called the National School Food Service Association, a national nonprofit representing more than 55,000 members of the school food service industry, almost half of all school districts in the nation serve salad on a daily basis to high school students, while 40 percent of districts serve salad daily to middle school students and 24 percent of districts serve salad daily to elementary school students. viii
food service staff also point to difficulties with the USDA commodity
system in integrating more plant-based menu options. Schools that
participate in federal food programs use commodities, or food purchased
by the USDA, to lower cost. According to a survey of 25 food service
departments by the Vegetarian Journal, a project of the Vegetarian
Resource Group in Baltimore, MD, not all commodities are always
available. For instance, one respondent indicated that commodities such
as cheese and nonfat dry milk are always accessible, but that items
like brown rice are not.ixi
School officials also cite the tension between high labor costs of food
service workers, who are often unionized and paid a higher hourly wage
than many other laborers, and the need to maintain a cost-effective
program that minimizes food preparation time, and, therefore, labor
hours. Finally, many cite competitive foods, such as those offered in
vending machines, and the problem with student acceptance of new foods
as additional challenges in integrating more plant-rich foods into
school meal programs.
This is where academics like Dr. Demas come in.
Antonia Demas became a vegetarian when she was 14, at a time when vegetarianism was highly unusual. She started teaching about nutrition about 35 years ago, when she volunteered at a local Head Start Center in Vermont when her son was born. "I was impressed with the academic program and philosophy of Head Start," Demas explained, "but I was unimpressed by the food. I started cooking with the kids and staff as a volunteer, and I found they had a great time and would eat what they had prepared."
Over time, Dr. Demas developed a wealth of food-based units of study as she worked as a consultant to school districts and as a volunteer in her children's classrooms. However, many of the academics working in education and nutrition viewed Demas as a "woman who cooked with kids," not as a serious academic. So, when Demas's son began his undergraduate studies at Cornell, Demas also enrolled. She was 41 when she entered the graduate program for a multidisciplinary Ph.D. at Cornell.
Dr. Demas focused on the connection between nutrition and education in her research. Documented in her award-winning dissertation, Food Education in the Elementary Classroom, Demas taught 16 plant-based lessons over the course of the school year in twelve classrooms, kindergarten through fifth grade, at a local elementary school. In these lessons, children learned about and prepared low-fat and meatless dishes, using foods that many of them had never seen. In doing this work, Demas discovered that when the same foods later showed up in the cafeteria, students who had learned about them ate from 3 to 20 times more than classmates who hadn't been instructed by Demas and were part of the control group. "Kids will eat what they prepare if you stress aesthetics and make it fun and they literally have a hand in the preparation .It's all about how you package it," said Demas.
developed Food is Elementary: A Hands-on Curriculum for Young Students
based on her research findings. The curriculum uses food as the vehicle
to talk about other academic disciplines, such as math, social studies,
and the sciences. The text and accompanying materials provide 28
lessons with age-appropriate plans for children in pre-K through 8th
grade to adults. Demas explained that Food is Elementary doesn't rely
only on cognition, the way some other curricula do. Instead, children
learn by doing, and the lessons engage all of the senses. For instance,
Demas was able to document that children retained what they learned far
beyond the immediacy of the classroom lessons, choosing plant-based
menu options when offered, months after being in Demas's class. Demas's
research has also shown that moving to plant-based school meal programs
can actually save school districts money.
In fact, children who are taught the curriculum may become their own best advocates for healthier menu options in the lunchroom. Ariel shared a story of such a turn of events in her school, where food service personnel overhead one of their young customers telling another child about what he learned in Ms. Demas's class, and how good the food was. "The lunch ladies came to my class after that and even used some of the recipes and food preparation techniques we learned in the classroom."
So why aren't more schools implementing the Food is Elementary curriculum, or some other comprehensive nutritional education program today?
The answer, Dr. Demas explains, is complex.
First, schools are overwhelmed. "Educators think, 'Oh no. Here's one more thing I need to integrate into my school day.' Many schools systems are also focused on teaching for a test, but they are ignoring the connection between nutrition - real nutrition - and academic performance," said Dr. Demas.
Second, changing the cafeteria system in many schools is a challenge. "Many food staff have done things the same way for years. They provide students with foods that mimic what they eat at home. In order to gain acceptance of unfamiliar foods, positive classroom education is essential," Dr. Demas said. And they are right in pointing to children's resistance to new, healthier food options. That's why a comprehensive curriculum that opens children's minds to healthier food choices is essential.
Dr. Demas expresses optimism that schools are more receptive to her program. There is a new Federal mandate that by 2006, all schools must have Wellness Committees. In fact, schools are now contacting her to discuss implementing the program rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, the reason for the turnaround is troubling: "The increase in childhood obesity rates and diseases that are exacerbated by poor diets, such as Type II Diabetes, is a major prompt," Demas said.
On a positive note, parents are increasingly playing a key role.
"Parents have way more power than they realize," Dr. Demas explains. "But the way they exert that power is important. Parents should work together and approach the school as a group, emphasizing that they want to work with the school.. It doesn't do any good to become the 'problem parent,'" counsels Demas.
there are resources that can help parents learn more about the issue
and do something about it. The resources below will help you educate
yourself and get involved today!
- Dr. Demas's own organization, The Food Studies Institute , works with parents' groups, educators, and food service professionals to help them collect data and implement food-based curricula.
- The DC Action for Healthy Kids team, is a coalition of public and private partners that helps schools achieve healthy environments and combat childhood obesity. DCAHK successfully lobbied the DC school board to pass a healthy vending policy that limits unhealthy beverages and snacks in vending machines in DC public schools.
- Citizens for Healthy Options in Children's Education provides information about diet and health and suggestions for parents, teachers, administrators, food service staff, and students about how to identify and overcome obstacles in encouraging your school to promote plant-based meals and nutrition education in schools.
i Gunderson, Gordon W. "National School Lunch Program Background and Development," USDA Food and Nutrition Service, available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/
ii "School Breakfast Program," USDA Food and Nutrition Service, available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/
iii "Program History & Data," School Nutrition Association, available at http://www.schoolnutrition.org/
iv "National School Lunch Program," USDA Food and Nutrition Service, http://www.fns.usda.gov/
v Low-Income Children in the United States (2004), National Center for Children in Poverty, available at http://www.nccp.org/
vi "School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study II: Summary of Findings," USDA Food and Nutrition Service, available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/
vii 2005 School Lunch Report Card, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, available at http://www.pcrm.org/
viii Hamdan, Samia, MPH, RD. "Schools Serve Up Salads," School Nutrition Association, available at http://www.schoolnutrition.org/
ix Niklas, Christina, RD, LD, CNSD, Havala Hobbs, Suzanne, DrPH, MS, RD. "Tips for Serving Vegetarian Meals in Schools: A Survey of School Food Service Staff, Vegetarian Journal . Issue 3, 2005.