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Schoolhouse
Montana school cleans up the playground, then the food
by Jane Hersey

For the past three years a school in Montana has changed the
behavior of their students by changing the food they eat.

Winter does not readily loosen its ice grip on northern Montana, but when the snow finally began to melt on the playground of his school, Principal Kim Anderson was surprised at what he saw. Buried beneath the snow were wrappers, packaging and containers of all types - testaments to the food the children had consumed months before. Curious about the litter, he took a closer look and found that most of it had come from the school's cafeteria. Like many public schools, the Whitefish Central School does not receive any funding to run its cafeteria. It must earn money through the sale of foods, and the most profitable appeared to be those candies, chips, sodas and other "a la carte" snacks whose wrappers now littered the grounds.

The school was contributing to the behavior problems

Parents gave their children money each morning, thinking they would eat a good lunch, Anderson observed, but for most of the students lunch consisted of foods full of synthetic additives such as a candy bar, bag of chips and a soft drink. It was clear from the ingredient labels he studied that what the children had consumed was not nutritious. "We're just selling junk here," was the comment of one of the teachers. As the staff shared their observations they all agreed that the number of behavior problems they were seeing had increased in the past few years, and that they followed a pattern. Discipline was not a big issue in the morning; most of the referrals came in the afternoon - about 90 minutes after the end of the lunch hour.

Anderson began to pay closer attention to tracking the behavior of his students and found that 90 minutes after they ate lunch, many of them were "bouncing off the wall," and 30 minutes later they had trouble staying awake. The staff agreed that it looked like behavior and learning were directly linked to nutrition and that the school was contributing to these behavior problems.

Food is fuel, the Whitefish staff believes, and it helps to fuel the children for learning.
First to go were machines that sold pop, high fat and additive-laden snacks. (Ironically, some of the funds from the sales had been going to support the school's health enhancement programs!) The PTA purchased their own refrigerated vending machine so they no longer have to share the revenues with the cola giants. The machine is now stocked with milk, yogurt, peanuts, fruit leather, and string cheese, which is so popular it needs to be restocked during the day.

There have also been major changes in the food served in the school's cafeteria, based on input from both the students and teachers. Healthy foods such as fresh fruit and homemade salads, sandwiches, and burritos are among the selections they all enjoy.

Student acceptance has not been an issue.

Homemade bread pretzels are a popular snack; the cooks prepare them from scratch using commodity ingredients provided by the federal government. Although it requires labor to prepare them, they are a good option since the profit earned is so high. Principal Anderson reports that the income from their healthier food is about the same as the previous additive-laden items. Many adults believed that students would not like healthier food, but Anderson told Pure Facts "Our kids will eat whatever is put before them."

There are other innovations at the Whitefish Central School, which comprises the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Now the students have recess prior to lunch. Under the old schedule they gulped down their food in order to get out onto the playground for recess and a child's lunch time was typically only 3 to 5 minutes! Now, they have recess first and then get 23 minutes to eat their lunch, which allows plenty of time to eat at a healthy pace with extra time for socializing. There has been another change in the cafeteria: the amount of food wasted has been cut in half, from 85 - 100 pounds a day, to about 45 pounds.

How have behavior and learning been affected by these changes?

"Nutrition is the missing link between academics and behavior in the classroom." -- Kim Anderson
"There has been a tremendous change in our students' behavior since we improved our food program" says Anderson. "This is our third year, and we have enough statistics to suggest that there is a direct correlation between junk food and minor disruptive behavior, especially in the hours after lunch." Anderson notes that while about 10 to 12 students were sent to him each day for behavior problems prior to the improvements; the number is now down to just 4 to 8 in an entire week.

Teachers report that they have gained between 10 and 15% additional teaching time since the children have calmed down and are more alert and able to focus. This is reflected in the fact that the school now ranks academically in the 76th percentile in the state.