Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Kids, diet, and education

I've got some stuff to post from the weekend but have regular work to attend to first. So, instead, I'm posting an old article on how a changing diet can lead to improved performance.

Food affects more than just how you look, it also influences how you behave.

By Steve Edwards

In Appleton, Wisconsin, one of the most amazing occurrences in the history of education happened in the late 1990's. In 1997, Appleton Central Alternative High School implemented a health food program. The Coke and candy machines were removed and the cafeteria quit serving standard school lunch: burgers, fries, etc. A company, called Natural Ovens (http://www.naturalovens.com/), set up a program to serve salad, veggies, whole grain breads, fresh water, and meats using only healthy recipes. The results were astonishing. Grades went up, truancies went down, fights stopped occurring, arguments were rare, and the teachers were able to focus on teaching instead of disciplining students.

Junk food doesn't just make you fat, it alters the way you think, feel, and react. It affects your entire emotional state. Yet we, as a country, are eating more junk food than ever. The worst of this often goes to our youth.

According to statistics sited in Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, some of the worst meat goes to fast food restaurants, schools and pets, in that order. So it's no surprise that an entire school's population might benefit from better nutrition. What's surprising is just how much it changed.The school cafeteria has a long history of serving less than palatable cuisine. Those of my generation probably harbor "fond" memories of such brain foods as Salisbury steak, corned beef hash, and soggy peas. The newer generation is faring far worse. In the late 80's, soft drink companies started contracting with schools to place vending machines in school hallways. Schools, often desperate for money, caved in.
Fast food companies followed suit and soon, soggy peas and processed steak were replaced by fries and soft drinks. The trade off was going from poor nutrition to bottom-of-the-barrel.

Appleton Central Alternative School is, well, an "alternative school"; a place where problem students end up. Greg Bretthauer, the dean of students, was offered the job prior to the program and found the students "rude, obnoxious, and ill-mannered." The school had so many problems with discipline and weapons violations that a police officer was recruited to be on the staff.

The new program had an instantaneous effect. In the state of Wisconsin, each school is required to file a report each year detailing the number of students who have dropped out, been expelled, committed suicide, or got caught using drugs or carrying weapons. Since the start of the program, the numbers at ACAHS have been the same each year: zero.

This would be a stat that any public or private school would be proud of. For an alternative school, it's nothing short of astonishing.In the story A Different Kind Of School Lunch, published in Pure Facts, the newsletter for the Feingold Association of the United States (http://www.feingold.org/), other schools in the Appleton district have made more moderate changes, such as eliminating candy and pop machines, and have also seen results.

"I see the kids this year as calmer, easier to talk to," said middle school teacher Dennis Abrahm.

"If you've been guzzling Mountain Dew and eating chips and you're flying all over the place, I don't think you're going to pick up a whole lot in class," stated Mary Bruyette, a teacher at ACAHS who claims things are now different. "I don't have to deal with daily discipline issues; that just isn't a factor here."

One student may have summed it up best saying, "Now that I concentrate, I think it's easier to get along with people ‘cause now I'm paying attention to what they have to say and not just worrying about what I have to say to them."

And how is the program working now, five years from its inception?

"I don't want to say better than ever, because it's always worked," said Bretthauer, "but we've made minor revisions, based on experience, to improve it. We've incorporated flaxseed and focused on the omega content of foods. Made fresh water even more available. We have monthly fruit smoothie days, and have really worked to incorporate more education about eating away from school—trying to get students to follow through at home. We've found the diet does play a major role in increasing the ability to concentrate. And we haven't had any type of emotional outbursts, still!"

On why this phenomenon has been slow to sweep the nation, Bretthauer rationalizes, "The economics of past practice is one thing and people are always resistant to change, but it's coming. In the next two to three years, most schools will have major changes. It's starting to happen. I think LA is eliminating soda machines and any carbonated beverages from being sold in their schools."

"This year, we had a junk food day and served nothing but sugar-laced foods, caffeinated beverages, foods prepared with palm oils, etc, and it had a significant effect on the kids. They ran around like hyped-up squirrels, felt sick, couldn't seem to concentrate."

"Pleeease," they said. "Don't have another one this year."

Since some people have told me that they wouldn't believe this piece if I hadn't called the school myself, you can read more about the school on their web site at: http://www.aasd.k12.wi.us/aca/

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