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Underfunded Schools Should Look to Cupcake Culture to Improve Performance


There are few if any public schools sitting around trying to decide how to spend excess funding. Most have seen their budgets plummet in recent years and are trying desperately to outfit classrooms with basic necessities, let alone state of the art learning technologies.

Clearly, this makes improving performance even more difficult. Given the economic challenges facing public school educators, I find it very curious that most remain totally resistant to leveraging the one area that can have perhaps the most tremendous impact at little to no cost: student nutrition.

As the parent of a 9 year-old in the Manatee County School District, this has long been an area of personal frustration. While the district has lauded some unique and worthy, targeted programs, the overall day to day nutrition in the schools themselves is abysmal.

My first experience was way back when my son was in Kindergarten and I accompanied him to have breakfast at school, as parents are welcome to do. I generally don't allow him to eat the cafeteria food, so I packed some healthy cereal in Tupperware bowls and we had our meal in the cafeteria with the other students.

I was mortified when an obese 2nd grader sat down next to us and unwrapped something called a breakfast corn dog. It was some sort of processed pseudo-sausage, dipped in Twinkie-like batter and served with artificial syrup. As if this abomination wasn't bad enough, she proceeded to fold it in a honey bun she'd purchased at the snack tree next to the cashier, and then washed the whole thing down with a chocolate milk. Then I suppose she went to class and did her best to stay focused and productive.

Returning over the years for dozens of breakfasts and lunches, I watched as time and again, students ate heavily processed, salt and sugar-packed mini-pizzas, chicken(ish) fingers, Go-Gurts and other foods with little or no nutritional value. Needless to say, these are combinations that would send their blood sugar levels into the stratosphere, while their tiny pancreases pumped insulin the rest of the day, as they tried their best to learn, despite food-induced sugar highs and the crash that follows.

I quickly learned that the district was completely disinterested in changing the cafeteria culture in any meaningful way; that a contract with U.S. Foods gave them surprisingly little control over what was offered in their cafeterias and that the calculus of participation rates and federal reimbursements promoted more emphasis on giving the children what they wanted, rather than what was best.

So I continued to fill my son's lunch box with fiber-rich grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins and lemon-flavored water – maybe a handful of animal crackers or a bite-size treat once in a while. Were these choices he would have made on his own? No, but given the choice, I don't think too many elementary students would make healthy and positive decisions on many things, which is why their decision-making ability is heavily restricted at that age.

We don't rely on the judgment of 16 year olds not to go into a 7-11 and buy a 6-pack of beer to guzzle before they get in their cars and drive, so it has never made sense to me that we would rely on the judgment of a 5-year old to choose between a doughnut and an apple.

So by avoiding the cafeteria food, I could ensure that at least my own child was eating meals that would support his classroom success, but the next battle was in the classroom itself. From the time he began school, I was utterly shocked at the frequency in which he would be loaded up with sugar outside of the cafeteria. A couple of dozen times each year, there would be the big, sugary cupcakes, because hey, it's one of the student's birthdays and even though there's likely going to be a party with cake, ice-cream and soda someplace that weekend, we've somehow conditioned students to believe that they're also entitled to 30 or 40 grams of sugar during a classroom celebration as well.

When my son would hit his AR reading goal, there was a “reward” of pizza, soda and ice cream lying in wait. Holiday parties are often an outright smorgasbord of sugary treats – even Halloween, because apparently that big sack of candy from trick-or-treat (and the ensuing sugar hangover that makes the next school day one of the least productive of the entire year) isn't enough).

We know that two factors impact student performance far more than any other – poverty and access to sound nutrition. Poverty is next to impossible to address from a school district level, but about half of a kid's typical caloric intake during the school week is ingested while they are at school. If we are saying it's impossible to change the cafeteria-culture, couldn't we at least decide that we are going to change what happens in the classroom itself?

Back in my days as a professional athlete, I spent a year while injured working for a nutritional consulting firm. Much of my time was spent teaching Type-A executives how to use performance-nutrition, not only to get or stay fit, but to feel and perform better throughout the day. Without exception, they were amazed at how a sound diet could make them feel, in terms of focus and energy levels. 

It wasn't rocket science, just the basic science of how our body's chemistry is impacted by food. Eat two doughnuts and a cup of cream and sugar coffee for breakfast, then the next day have some slow-cooking oatmeal and a liter of water and tell me which afternoon finds you at your best. Yet, our societal norms promote the opposite of what is best for us.

It didn't take most of my clients long to make the connection that if they felt and performed so much better with proper food intake, so would their kids. I realize that most students or parents will not have the benefit of such one-on-one education, but who better than the school system to promote and encourage such a culture change, especially when they have the most to gain?

That's right – anyone who doesn’t understand that by helping to reduce the negative impact of loading students with sugar-packed foods during the school day, they will have a greater impact on student achievement than nearly any other feasible modification which can be made, indeed has some learning to do.

Each year we spend millions of taxpayer dollars training and evaluating educators; implementing new strategies and techniques that will purportedly raise performance and test scores, yet we continue to drop (Manatee is currently ranked 55 of 67 counties in Florida, down from 47 a year prior) while making no effort to pick up easy wins in areas like better student nutrition.

How hard would it be to say: Hey, we're not going to drug your kids with food during the school day any longer. We've decided that the classroom might not be the best place to celebrate birthdays given that we're ranked 55th in the state. For holiday parties, we've decided that the emphasis is going to be on games and activities, rather than food. We're no longer going to reward your students with pizza. Instead, students who achieve certain benchmarks will gather for an activity of some sort.

I am not saying that kids should never have a treat, but I am questioning the wisdom of maintaining a culture that consistently promotes unhealthy behavior as a reward for achievment. Is it any wonder we live in the fattest country in the world, that 1 in 3 Americans (including 1 in 5 children) suffer from obesity, or that the term juvenile diabetes was coined to identify a uniquely American phenomenon of little kids getting a disease once thought to only impact the middle-aged?

When we teach children from a very young age that we should celebrate our successes by doing something unhealthy to our bodies, is it any wonder that nearly 2,000 college students die from binge drinking episodes annually? Aren't beer funnels and keg stands after finals the logical extension of what they learn about rewarding their work from the time they start school?

Clearly the school district can't solve all of these problems, but they are in a unique position to help change our unhealthy culture, rather than continuing to be a major force in perpetuating it. The fact that they have a vested interest in doing so should make this a no-brainer.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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