Our children’s in-school breakfasts are getting a nutritional makeover. Policy makers are split on the issue but the science holds up. On January 31, Michelle Obama released new in-school meal standards, the latest product of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. These standards include an increase in the amounts of fruits and vegetables in school food, a requirement that 50 percent of grains served be whole grains, and a restriction that only allows the sale of low- and non-fat milk. Such regulations stand in contrast to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill passed by Congress this past November. This bill included riders that opposed limiting the amount of starch in school meals and, infamously, continued allowing one-eighth of a cup of pizza’s tomato paste (though not pizza itself) to count as half a cup of vegetables.
Politicians who oppose guidelines like those of the First Lady have two main concerns. First, the overall cost of these programs. In 2010, the School Breakfast Program, which provides affordable breakfasts to schoolchildren all over the country, cost $2.9 billion. Secondly, they worry about the effect the new ingredients would have on the food suppliers like ConAgra and The National Potato Council.
While this opposition is commonly dismissed as a case of politicians favoring big business over student health, it is important to recognize that there were educational organizations also opposed to the new standards. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National School Boards Association and the Council of the Great City Schools all lobbied against the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (which raised standards regarding the use of fruit, vegetables and whole grains in school meals). Additionally, they favored the Agriculture Appropriations Bill (the one that kept tomato paste’s special vegetable status). Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of Policy Analysis and Advocacy for AASA, says that her organization’s issues with the new school nutrition standards address the structural, financial and nutritional aspects of this legislation.
The AASA’s main concern is that the programs created by the federal government don’t allow for enough control at the state and local levels. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 raised the reimbursement to schools participating in national school meal programs but Ellerson says it is still not enough funding for the suggested changes. In terms of the cost associated with this act, she says, “At best the federal increased reimbursement was not even half of the cost the school districts are going to incur, or just over half.”
When it came to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, the AASA’s argument was that restricting the use of tomato paste and potatoes was not the same as teaching children to eat healthily. Rather, says Ellerson, teaching healthy eating through school nutrition is “being smarter about putting options in front of children and teaching them: yes, you can eat a potato and it doesn’t have to be fried.” She also pointed out that pizza is a popular item in school lunch, without which some students would throw their lunch away or avoid it all together. However, says Ellerson, “We would never actively endorse pizza as a vegetable.”
Beneath the politics of this fight, science is fast revealing the true importance of children’s eating habits, particularly when it comes to breakfast. “Having breakfast is really important in terms of their school performance and how they behave in school and [how] they do in their lessons and their ability to concentrate,” says Katie Adolphus, a psychology postgraduate researcher at Leeds University in the United Kingdom.
Anecdotal evidence about the importance of breakfast appeared in research as early as the 1950s but experimental tests of the relationship between breakfast and academic performance did not come about until the 1980s. Even then, the results were mixed due to scientists’ limited abilities to test the effects of breakfast on their subjects with confidence.
Since then, researchers have built on these early studies by creating a more detailed account of how breakfast affects children. For example, Simon Cooper, a doctoral candidate from Loughborough University’s Institute of Youth Sport, also in the U.K., reported in July that eating breakfast improved memory and attention in adolescents. These effects were strongest later in the morning when subjects were performing complex tasks.
Without breakfast, says Adolphus, students miss out on all of these advantages until lunch. In her own research, Adolphus focuses on how food choice affects the impact of breakfast. In one study, she initially found that children’s out-of-school breakfast habits had no effect on their test scores. These curious results caused her to examine the types of foods the children were eating: cereals and breads, along with lots of sugar, caffeine and carbonated drinks. She concluded that low-glycemic index breakfasts appear to have greater positive cognitive effects because they create a level release of glucose in the brain and less metabolic stress. In other words, they keep a person’s brain fueled longer than high-glycemic index foods and avoid causing a crash once the fuel runs out.
This conclusion is supported by other studies, including one by Caroline Mahoney, a cognitive scientist at the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research Development & Engineering Center in Massachusetts. She conducted a Quaker Oats-funded study in which school children ate breakfasts of ready-to-eat cereal or oatmeal, or nothing at all. Mahoney concluded that visual perception and spatial memory were improved by eating either of the breakfasts, but the children who ate oatmeal outperformed the other two groups in the areas of spatial memory, short-term memory and auditory attention. These results varied depending on the age and gender of the participants, and Mahoney emphasizes that the many other factors can impact cognition, such as a students’ nutritional status, rate of glucose metabolism, normal meal habits, and the time at which they eat breakfast.
Even in light of these additional factors, Mahoney says, “there is compelling evidence that breakfast not only contributes positively to a child’s overall nutrient intake, but may also benefit their ability to attend to and remember information in school.”
How exactly breakfast causes these positive effects remains unclear. Keith Wesnes, professor of psychology at Northumbria University, supports Adolphus’ suggestion that level glucose intake is one of the essential factors. His research shows that children who have a sugary drink for breakfast performed on the same level as those who didn’t eat breakfast at all. Alternatively, children who had cereal – Cheerios or Shreddies (what the British call Shredded Wheat) – were better equipped to pay attention and remember the material over a span of three-and-a-half hours after breakfast.
In addition to the effect of glucose, Mahoney suggests that the balance between carbohydrates and protein in our meals deserves our attention. In her study, she explains how a meal high in carbohydrates increases our intake of tryptophan, an amino acid that other research has shown may decrease alertness and reaction times and increase fatigue. When Mahoney had her subjects consume a small amount of protein with their high-carb meal, she found that this was enough to raise levels of tyrosine – another amino acid – which, according to other research, counteracts the effects of tryptophan. Even with all of this research, many uncertainties remain about which kinds of foods are best. Compounding this problem is the question of how these meals should be distributed to schoolchildren.
New York City has offered free breakfast to its students, regardless of family income, since 2003. All schools in New York State are required to provide breakfast, though not all of them are free. Since 2004, New York has also tried to address the quality of school food by eliminating trans-fats, increasing fiber and reducing sodium and calories in all of their meals. This sounds like a great program, but free and subsidized school meals are pricey and improving nutrition tends to increase the cost even more, especially since healthier foods are usually more expensive and involve more preparation. According to Ellerson, the AASA estimated that the changes required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 would cost between 11 and 25 cents per meal, while the federal reimbursement is only 6 cents per meal.
Even when funded, in-school breakfasts are not easy to supply. A sizeable barrier, says Adolphus, is “staff time. There’s just no one to run these programs.” She explains that these breakfasts are often manned by already-overworked teachers and that, in order to receive breakfasts, children have to come to school earlier than they usual. This early start, says Ellerson, creates an additional problem: transportation. She says that the higher energy costs of preparing an extra meal add to the expense, as well.
To avoid some of these difficulties, select schools have begun serving breakfasts in class. New York City first piloted Breakfast in the Classroom in 2008. The program started in 20 schools and now boasts a membership of 145. While eating breakfast in the classroom cuts down on staffing requirements and allows students to arrive at their normal times, it takes time away from lessons. Says Adolphus, “It’s kind of a double-edged sword in a way.”
Feeding students breakfast in school isn’t easy. It requires special funding and extra staff work, and researchers have yet to pin down exactly what students should eat. But, regardless of the details and difficulties involved, experts say the benefits are undeniable and worth the trouble. Says Adolphus, “My overall research says we need these breakfast programs in place.” And Ellerson agrees. She stresses, however, that these programs must be implemented properly saying, “The best way to provide a nutrition program that supports healthful students is one that is, in large part, implemented at the state and local level.” Altogether, breakfast appears not only to be the most important meal of the day but also the most controversial.