SCHOOL CHILDREN, FOOD AND PERFORMANCE
Evidence that good diet does have some effect on school performance
In many developed countries, children’s diet has deteriorated significantly over the last decades; resulting in significant increases in child obesity, but also in important deficiencies in those nutrients playing an essential role in cognitive development. There is increasing evidence that a healthy school lunch whether free or paid for, can have a positive impact on pupils’ behaviour, alertness, concentration and their performance at school directly and indirectly. Try teaching a class of children who have had no breakfast. One study ‘ Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children’ concluded that Diet can affect cognitive ability and behaviour in children and adolescents with recent findings showing a more consistent link between improved nutrition and school performance and behaviour It found for example that nutrient composition and meal pattern can exert immediate or long-term, beneﬁcial or adverse effects. It said ‘In spite of potent biological mechanisms that protect brain activity from disruption, some cognitive functions appear sensitive to short-term variations of fuel (glucose) availability in certain brain areas. A glucose load, for example, acutely facilitates mental performance, particularly on demanding, long-duration tasks.’ One aspect of diet that has elicited much research in young people is the intake/omission of breakfast. This has obvious relevance to school performance. While effects are inconsistent in well-nourished children, breakfast omission deteriorates mental performance in malnourished children. Even intelligence scores can be improved by micronutrient supplementation in children and adolescents with very poor dietary status.
Overall, the literature suggests that good regular dietary habits are the best way to ensure optimal mental and behavioural performance at all times. The behaviour of children and adolescents with poor nutritional status can, to a certain extent at least, be altered by dietary measures. What is clear is that for some pupils from low income families school lunch may be their only nutritionally balanced meal of the day. But it is also true that we do not yet have clear evidence of a direct link between diet and educational attainment. There is very strong evidence though that improving the educational attainment of poorer pupils is the most effective way of reducing inequalities.
What about specific research? The Belot and James (2009) Healthy school meals and educational outcomes paper uses the unique features of the “Jamie Oliver Feed Me Better” campaign to study the effects of healthy school meals on educational achievements of children in primary school. The Jamie Oliver campaign introduced drastic changes in the meals offered in the schools of one borough (Greenwich), shifting from low-budget processed meals, high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar towards healthier options. This showed that the intervention in Greenwich did indeed result in higher SATS scores compared with similar LAs with no intervention. The study evaluates the effect of the campaign on educational outcomes using a difference in differences approach; comparing key stage 2 outcomes in primary schools before and after the reform, using the neighbouring Local Education Authorities as a control group. The study found evidence that healthy school meals did improve educational outcomes, in particular in English and Science. School Food Trust research on School lunch and behaviour in primary schools found Pupils’ alertness increased, resulting in a three-fold greater engagement with teachers in four intervention schools compared with two control schools in Sheffield. The study supports the anecdotal reporting by teachers that children are more alert following a healthy lunch.
Healthy School Meals and Educational Outcomes (2009) Michèle Belot Nuffield College, University of Oxford; ISER Research Associate Jonathan James ; Department of Economics, University of Essex
Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children (2004)
France Bellisle; Hoˆtel-Dieu, 1 Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, 75181 Paris, France