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Laying the Foundation: Promoting Health and Nutrition in Schools

The entire school environment, including the food served in vending machines and cafeterias, should support healthy choices. Similarly, physical activity is important. Children should be encouraged to get at least 60 minutes of daily exercise through physical education classes, recess and in-classroom activity.

Nutrition education equips students with lifelong skills that benefit them well beyond the classroom. For example, cooking improves math and reading skills, and helps with self-awareness by exploring the mind-body connection.

School Lunches

School lunches serve a vital role in students’ daily diets, providing much-needed nutrients and promoting good habits. Students who eat healthy meals are more likely to have better academic performance, less absenteeism and fewer disciplinary problems.

Research also indicates that students who participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk compared to non-participants.

Food service directors and their staff do more than simply serve students lunch, though; they also plan menus, negotiate contracts with food vendors, train cafeteria workers, hire cooks, obtain nutritionist support, and run day-to-day operations. They play a critical role in helping tens of millions of children and families—particularly those furthest from economic opportunity—to grow up healthy. In addition, schools can help address the broader health needs of their communities by ensuring that healthy foods are available at school-sponsored events like birthday parties, fundraisers and sporting events.4

Teaching Healthy Habits

Teaching children to have healthy habits at a young age will give them the skills to carry these behaviors into their adult life. Kids will learn that regular exercise and good nutrition are essential to their physical and psychological well-being.

Incorporating nutrition education in a holistic way is key to promoting health in schools. Kids spend a significant portion of their day in school and should be exposed to consistent messages around healthy eating from the cafeteria, front office, classroom and special events.

Schools can make it easy to eat healthy by offering nutritious food options for school snacks, lunches, parties, sporting events and fundraisers. In addition, they can educate students, teachers and families about nutritional topics via posters, point of sale, menus, websites, parent comms, cooking demonstrations and classes. Also, schools can encourage hydration by providing water in the classrooms and cafeteria and suggesting students bring their own reusable water bottles to school.

Wellness Education

Students are better learners when they feel healthy and confident. This is why wellness education in schools should be an integral part of a school’s overall approach to student success. Incorporating health and nutrition into all curriculums, focusing on the whole child, and creating healthy community partnerships are just some of the many ways that a school can promote wellness and help their students thrive in school.

School employees can also be a key factor in their communities’ health and wellness. When teachers, staff and administrators start incorporating wellness into their own lives, they can encourage their families to do the same.

To encourage teachers and staff to eat well at school, host taste tests or other fun events that will get them trying new foods. Incorporate nutrition promotion into all forms of communication with families, such as newsletters, social media and school websites. Also, make sure that nutrition information is available in the languages that most students and parents speak at home.

Incorporating Physical Activity

While PE classes and recess have traditionally been places where kids can get physical activity, schools can also incorporate movement into classrooms. Incorporating movement breaks into class -- aka, a brain break or an energizer -- can help students stay focused and engaged. These short periods of movement can be helpful before a test, after lunch, or even as a way to calm and relax during a stressful time.

Getting children to move doesn't have to happen only in the classroom; a school can provide more opportunities for kids to be physically active during the day by offering afterschool sports, intramurals, and other programs. The CDC says that frequent bouts of activity -- both structured and unstructured -- can improve children's mental health.

In the 8 schools that made nutrition-related accomplishments, the presence of a coordinated team, clear nutrition policies, and a health champion facilitated positive changes. In contrast, schools that made the fewest nutritional improvements (2-4 accomplishments) lacked some of these characteristics.