Guest Post: Recipe for Student Health and Success

omega3.jpgOne teacher’s quest for real answers to the problem of student underachievement.
When I was a kid, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge meant paying a toll each way. For decades traffic slowed (or stopped) morning and night, every workday. Then, because 30 years is enough time to think things through, a light bulb went on in the Bridge Authority and they realized they could slow traffic down in only ONE direction each day, and charge double, because those people would go HOME at night!
What else is right in front of our noses but we won’t notice for 30 years?
For instance, is there some hidden cause for the decline in SAT scores, and the far higher rate of absences, retention, violence, and vandalism? Could school meals have anything to do with it? Dr. Alexander Schauss thinks so, he found that whenever prisons or juvenile halls improved nutrition, there was up to 75% less violence, theft, and other antisocial behavior. It’s time to see the obvious: when it comes to school food “garbage in, garbage out.”

To fix school meals, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The story of pellagra has a lot to teach us. First reported in 1902, pellagra was known for the “4 D’s”: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death. At least 100,000 died, and thirty times that many suffered but survived. Three decades in, one researcher showed that it was not an infectious disease but resulted from deficiencies. Another 10 years went by before the FDA required white flour to be fortified with B vitamins, which finally ended the epidemic.
The new pellagra
In the 1980’s, Dr. Don Rudin called a constellation of problems “neo-pellagra.” As a department head at a psychiatric institute, he designed a pilot study that gave 44 patients a nutritious diet plus omega-3s in the form of flax oil or fish. The subjects had a variety of physical problems like eczema and allergies, and mental problems, including schizophrenia, depression, and agoraphobia, all of which responded dramatically to the regimen. [link here][link here].
While B vitamins were the missing link in the earlier pellagra, this time around it was essential fatty acids called omega-3s that were missing. What are omega-3s, you may wonder? They are called essential because we cannot make them from other oils and fats we consume. However, omega-3s are very hard to find in the modern diet, and trans fats are a big reason why.
Trans fats
Lately, trans fats are notorious because they are now banned in New York City, but food activists have been opposing trans fats for years. Next time you’re in the supermarket, juggle five 1-pound cans of Crisco in your arms. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, that’s how much trans fat the average American eats in a year! That’s 6.21 grams per day, which seems low when you consider that a person eating one doughnut for breakfast (3.2 g) and a large order of french fries for lunch (6.8 g) would ingest 10 g of trans fatty acids.
Of course, someone on a junk food diet (think: teenager) would be consuming 15 to 20 grams a day of trans fat! For total fat calories eaten per day, the average American consumes the equivalent of a whole stick of butter each day.
This is why it’s such good news that the New York City ban on trans fats has many copy cats, including Universal Studios and Disney. Yet, oddly enough, the USDA’s $9 billion dollar school breakfast and lunch program still serves pudding and “healthy” donuts, and more, that contain trans fats, despite the fact that the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Health says there is no safe level of trans fats.
The missing omega-3s
Omega-3s are scarce in the American diet not only because beef is no longer grass-fed, people eat less fish and greens, but also because the trans fats in so many processed foods cancel omega-3s. [LINK]
We’ve all heard about the new epidemics of obesity, asthma, allergies, ADD, and diabetes in America’s school children. It began small 30 years ago but is now at emergency levels. True, many of my students function better because of Ritalin and inhalers, but they weren’t born with a deficiency of Ritalin or epinephrine.
Could it be that these ailments are far more prevalent now because our food has changed? As a matter of fact, according to Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., who headed the NIH Nutrition Committee for nine years, 90% of Americans are omega-3-deficient. Kids with asthma and allergies typically have lower plasma levels of omega-3s, as do many kids with ADD. Since all those problems are greatly helped by omega-3s, shouldn’t we increase omega-3 foods in the schools?
To add to the complexity of the problem, it turns out that the ratio between omega-3s, (important for IQ, vision, and immunity) and omega-6s is another factor we must consider. We evolved on a natural diet that ranged from 1:1 on up to 1:4 in the ratio between omega-3s (found in grass-fed beef and fish) and omega-6s (found in corn, safflower, sunflower, and cottonseed oil). Now the American diet has a ratio more like 1:15 or even 1:20. The opportunity cost of using corn oil is that any tiny amount of omega-3s that Americans might consume will be overwhelmed by the 6s. That’s why olive oil, low in both 3s and 6s, has been helpful, since it keeps the ratio closer to the ideal. The World Health Organization recommends a ratio of 3s to 6s of no more than 1:10. Sweden recommends a ratio of 1:5, and Japan recently lowered its recommendation from 1:4 to 1:2.
Where is the FDA?
Beyond that, you may ask, why hasn’t the FDA set a Recommended Daily Allowance for omega-3s? Maybe because if they did then the USDA school meal program would have to insure that kids got them. Two years ago, the Office of Management and Budget urged the Department of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to revise the nation’s dietary guidelines to say that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, while trans fatty acids may increase the risk. So far, no change.
Recently, consumers have forced food manufacturers to give up trans fat even though it has a fantastic shelf life. But food processors will fight fiercely to keep omega-3s off the list of essential nutrients because foods made with them have a very short shelf life.
Some school districts ahead of the curve
There has been some progress: Years before New York City banned those trans fats, North Carolina took them out of school meals. [Nutrition in School Food Program Section 7.29.(a) G.S. 115C-264] Meanwhile, in Texas twenty-eight school districts now serve enchiladas and nachos enriched with the “good guy” omega-3s extracted from sardines.
Will kids eat healthy food? I had a little experiment in my second grade classroom. I showed my students that I could eat omega-3-rich sardines — scales, guts, bones and all! Half of them begged for a taste. With their parents’ permission, they could have sardines every day for snacks and often asked for seconds and thirds! (Humans have eaten sardines for millennia; Sardines are better than tuna because they are lower on the food chain and have hardly any mercury or dioxin residues.) The sardine eaters improved academically faster than the others.
Antonia Demas has been bringing wholesome, delicious food to children for years with her “Food Is Elementary” curriculum. To see how she gets a child to write, “I have changed my favorite food from candy to brocolli,” visit this link.
The average teen drinks at least two 12-ounce sodas a day, that’s 300 calories! (source) Tufts University researchers found that the average American consumes 120 pounds of sugar a year, which is 600 calories a day from sugar. (source) Yup, that means the average kid gets half their empty calories from sodas! It’s good that schools are finally banning soda machines.
Besides the lack of omega-3s and excess trans fat, food in schools is plagued by high amounts of corn syrup and other sugars. Food containing this high fructose corn sweetener can legally be called “all natural.” While raisins are really natural, mixing a cheap sweetener with white flour and hydrogenated fat makes a nonfood that can be advertised as “all natural.” You know corn syrup is cheap but did you know that it stimulates the brain’s opiate receptors? That’s why food processors like to put it in as many foods as possible. (source)
It’s not just in sodas
But corn syrup is not only in sodas. Our consumption of corn syrup has risen 250% in the past 15 years because it’s in just about anything that is sweetened. A new study links the sharp rise of diabetes to the growing consumption of refined carbohydrates. Another study links trans fats to diabetes. So our kids are getting a double whammy, namely, corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. No wonder diabetes in children has tripled in ten years. (source).
Corn syrup is the third ingredient of the frosted cereal the cafeteria gives my students for breakfast, after the flour (which is first), and regular sugar (which is second)! The national school lunch program was created to prevent the high level of poor health found in military draftees for WWII, but now it is part of the problem, helping to cause the poor health that we all pay for in the higher cost of education and health care, and lower productivity, not to mention the cost of crime and addiction.
John Hoebel, a psychologist at Princeton University, is researching whether it is possible to become dependent on the natural opioids released from eating a large amount of sugar. Along with a team of physiologists from the University of the Andes in Venezuela, Hoebel recently showed that rats fed a diet containing 25 per cent sugar are thrown into a state of anxiety when the sugar is removed. Their symptoms include chattering teeth and the shakes—similar, he says, to those seen in people withdrawing from nicotine or morphine. (source) Is it realistic to think that a few “five a day” posters on the cafeteria walls will convince kids to choose veggies over the sugary options? Why not simply require that all calories on school campuses be healthy calories?
Lessons from anti-tobacco campaign
We can learn a lot from the anti-tobacco movement. After our nation hit the tipping point, not only were existing laws that prevented minors from buying cigarettes more effectively enforced, but new laws were passed to ban smoking from public places. New curricula with the anti-tobacco message were added. Beyond that, state governments sued Big Tobacco when the health fallout of cigarettes overwhelmed the medical system and tax dollars were footing a large part of the bill.
Similarly, now that some states and school districts are improving nutrition beyond the USDA standards, it won’t be long before state governments turn their lawyers towards Big Junk Food.
What’s served at schools
But isn’t an ounce of prevention better than a pound of cure? Adults need to ignore the cries of junk food addicted children and sweep the corn syrup and trans fats entirely out of school campuses, which would automatically increase the consumption of fruits and veggies.
In case you thought cafeteria food was nutritious, drop by your neighborhood public school at breakfast or lunchtime. Besides the “healthy” donuts and pudding that contain both corn syrup and trans fats, school meals count potatoes and corn, which every adult knows are nearly pure starch, as vegetables.
Sure, the kids can choose salad, but two heads of iceburg lettuce are all that’s needed per day for all 350 kids at my school, and most of that is left behind. And the kids can choose fresh fruit, but when the salad bar has canned fruit swimming in sugar syrup, guess what they take?
In other words, when kids have nothing to go on but their years of watching TV commercials and the all-too-human desire for sweetness and saltiness, it’s no wonder that they choose the worst foods in the cafeteria.
My district food service says meals are better now. True, kids are no longer served Capri Sun or Sunny Delight (which contains only 2% real fruit juice plus a lot of corn syrup). Plus, nowadays the fresh fruit is actually ripe. But we must do a lot more.
The Mental Health Foundation says scientific studies have clearly linked attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialized diets. (source).
The few dieticians who are real advocates for children’s nutrition stick out in the crowd, people like Enid Hohn in Vista, CA. Vista Unified replaced chips, candy and sodas with granola bars, dried fruit, beef jerky, nuts, cut-up fruit, shaker salads, vegetables with ranch dressing, tuna packs with crackers, water bottles, milk and fruit juice. Hohn says, “Kids will eat healthier items and you can still make money, and a pox on anybody who says kids are only going to drink soda and eat Flaming Hot Cheetos. In 10 years I believe we will look back and say, ‘Can you believe we used to sell that junk to our students?’ ” (source)
IQ and Academic Achievement
Poor nutrition is a major cause of low IQ and aggression, big problems for educators that no amount of new curricula and increased teacher training will fix. One study of 1000 children found that the malnourished group had a 41% increase in aggression by age 8 and a reduction in IQ. Between 9 and 16% of American adolescents are iron deficient, and for black and Mexican American girls it ranges between 19 and 22%. (source).
Achievement Gap and Vitamin D
Lower IQ is one explanation for a failure to learn. Researchers studied 245 children in a Phoenix elementary school, giving half a vitamin-mineral supplement and the other half placebos. The children on supplements had an average gain in nonverbal IQ points over those taking placebos. Significantly, the overall gain was due almost entirely to 24 children who exhibited an average 16-point higher net gain in IQ scores over placebo controls.
“In order to place this magnitude in social perspective,” the researchers note, “a typical high school graduate who enters a vocational trade school has an average IQ of 100 while the typical college graduate who is successful in graduate school has an IQ of 115.” (source)
Considering that the “achievement gap” can be one to four years between white kids and Hispanic kids (and black kids), improving nutrition would be one way to close the gap.
Another factor in the Achievement Gap is that the darker a person’s skin tone, the less vitamin D they can make (especially in winter when no one living above Atlanta can make vitamin D in their skin), and that affects brain chemistry. (source)
Vitamin D is a new media darling:
Forbes reports it helps fight off tuberculosis.
Harvard found it prevents cancer.
Researchers find that D prevents diabetes.
And it prevents schizophrenia.
But hardly any food contains vitamin D. Until schools start issuing vitamin supplement pills, about the only way to get it is from food that contains fish livers, i.e. sardines (which are more sustainable than fish at the top of the food chain, although we must work to protect them too.) It’s true that milk is fortified with D. But did you know that 70% of black kids and 90% of Asian kids are allergic to milk? (source)
Special Ed
Special Ed requires a lower teacher-student ratio. In New Jersey, where special ed students comprise just over a 20th of the students, a fifth of the budget is needed for their education. In Washington D.C., the special ed budget sucks up almost a third of the entire school budget, to support the tenth of the District’s students who are in special ed. “Learning disabilities, or LDs, account for over 51 percent of all children in special ed. . . . More than 80 percent of all school children in the United States could qualify as learning-disabled under one definition or another.” (source)
Learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADD, and more, respond well to nutrition, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if the school breakfast and school lunch program solved a lot of these problems!
Food Additives Cause ADD
In a review of two dozen scientific studies, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) contends that food dyes and certain foods can adversely affect children’s behavior. The 32-page report titled “Diet, ADHD, and Behavior” charges that federal agencies, professional organizations, and the food industry are ignoring evidence that diet affects behavior. (source)
Pesticides Cause ADD
Did you know that only a third of the cotton boll is fiber, while the rest of each cotton boll is mostly oil and ends up in salad dressing and chips, or as cattle food? Environmental contaminants are found in disproportionate numbers of people in the juvenile and criminal justice system. (source) Research has implicated pesticides and exposure to low levels of industrial chemicals that may interfere with hormones, especially thyroid. Pages 53, 59 at this lnk
Furthermore, while 90% of U.S. children have detectable residues of at least one organo-phosphate pesticide in their bodies, little is known about their effects on the developing brain. In the laboratory, a single low-level exposure to an organophosphate pesticide or a pyrethroid at day 10 of life causes permanent changes in the brain and hyperactivity of rodents. (source) The milk from cows that eat the 3 million tons of cottonseed hulls is not tested for pesticide residues, which makes it easy to say no traces have been found. (source) However, the Centers for Disease Control recently looked for and found 116 pesticides and other chemicals in human blood and urine, an industrial chemical “body burden” that is passed on to our children through breast milk and prenatal exposure. (PDF) For some perspective, nearly a qua rter of all pesticides used in the US are applied to cotton.
Follow the Leader
Beyond cutting out the junk and increasing veggies and fruits, our kids also deserve to get the omega-3s that Americans once ate on a routine basis. Consider what’s really possible. Seven years ago, in Appleton, Wisconsin, the alternative high school, serving a hundred “at risk” youth, was transformed overnight. Out went the soda machines, salty fried snacks, and cookies. Bottled water became the main beverage. Salads, whole grain bread with added flax meal, casseroles and soups, and smoothies were the new fare.
For the last seven years, there have been no guns or drugs on campus and no dropouts or expulsions! Super Size Me Two years ago, the entire district –- 15,000 kids in 24 schools -– adopted the healthier meal plan. Over these two years, the Appleton district has saved $5 million in operations costs as a result of less vandalism and graffiti, and other savings. (link)
That’s 24 schools. How about over 800 schools? From 1979 through 1982, Dr. Stephen Schoenthaler supervised meal changes New York City schools and in that four year period the number of students passing final exams went from 11 percent below the national average to five percent above. Schoenthaler also improved nutrition in youth detention centers. One of his studies showed that the number of violations of house rules fell by 37 percent when vending machines were removed and canned food in the cafeteria was replaced by fresh alternatives. He summarizes his research, “Having a bad diet right now is a better predictor of future violence than past violent behavior.” (source)
It’s no surprise that the SF Bay Area is a hotbed of school food reform. In Berkeley, Chef Ann Cooper has the same tiny budget every other district suffers, yet manages to replace nearly all the processed foods with nutritious alternatives, including a lot of organic and local produce, and still manages to increase participation. The New Yorker recently covered her frustrations and success and her new book, Lunch Lessons—Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, tells how she does it.
Then there is Miguel Villarreal in Marin County. His parents were farm workers and as a teenager after a day in the fields even “the tips of my hair were sore.” Now he brings organic salads and wholesome pizza to school kids in Marin. The high school kids, who supposedly won’t give up their salty, sugary junk food, love his wraps.
The most recent arrival is Revolution Foods, founded by two women with brand new MBAs who are showing what is possible at charter schools, which otherwise can’t offer school meals or end up relying on fast food outlets to provide questionable meals. Partnering with Whole Foods, they set an example for all schools.
Recipe for Student Health and Success
It took 30 years to speed up rush hour across Bay Area bridges. Now it’s time to reverse 30 years of steady decline in school food. Can we afford to ignore this information another day? We educate children to look both ways crossing the street, to wear seatbelts, to be cautious around strangers, but we allow TV advertisements to teach them about food—which has a far greater impact on their lives—and then claim we are powerless to counteract those hours of indoctrination. Research shows that kids need nutrition education in the classroom before they can appreciate new foods that happen to be healthy such as, say, tabouli, hummus, sprouted grain bread, sprouts, and so on. (source)
Americans have been dumbed down by junk food like trans fat and corn syrup. We certainly have been sicked down by our diet, hence the huge cost of health care, now a sixth of our GDP ($7,110 per capita), and in ten years it will be a fifth of GDP ($12,320 per capita). What if some of that money was freed up to go towards reducing global warming or early childhood education! We know chronic illness takes the lion’s share of our medical care dollars, and we know that at least half of illness relates to lifestyle issues like smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, and poor food choices. (source)
To solve our social and environmental problems, we’re going to need all the healthy, smart citizens we can grow. Following seven heretofore overlooked criteria for school food would bring dramatic results in student behavior and achievement, leading to vast ripple effects in the wider community like reduced health care costs, lower crimes rates, higher productivity:
•Ban trans fats
•Cut out corn syrup and reduce sugar of all other types
•Include omega-3s, especially EPA and DHA
•No longer count corn, potatoes as “vegetables”
•Reduce the omega-6 oils (corn, safflower, etc.) so that the ratio of 3s to 6s is healthier
•Ban cottonseed oil, which is loaded in pesticide residues because cotton is considered a fiber crop not a food crop
•Cut out artificial colors and flavors
P.S. on Sustainability
Everyone should be concerned about the world’s oceans being over fished as omega-3 awareness increases. However, three companies have developed non-fish sources for EPA and/or DHA, which would also be good news for vegans (flax oil is an omega-3 oil but contains no EPA or DHA). These non-fish oils could be added to popular foods served in schools.
Photonz is producing micro-organisms which generate eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids normally found in fish which eat the algae. This acid and its cousin, known as DHA, have become a holy grail for the food industry because they are seen as beneficial for a range of modern disorders from heart disease to dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A trial now under way in Durham, England, has found that 40 per cent of children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities show dramatic learning improvements by taking supplements of EPA and other brain acids.
Martek Biosciences Corporation manufactures DHA made from microalgae.
A Swiss company called eau+ ( has been farming “a secret strain of algae called V-Pure” which produces essential fatty acids. Two capsules contain 75 mg EPA and 270 mg of DHA.
Questions? Comments?
Lauren Ayers teaches elementary school and attends Presidio School of Management part time. As a community activist, she has worked on issues ranging from food security, organic farming, home birth, blocking nuclear energy, micro credit, and improving school nutrition. All her friends consume omega-3s.

2 responses

  1. Just a note on the Vitamin D section. “But did you know that 70% of black kids and 90% of Asian kids are allergic to milk?” needs revising – they are lactose intolerant, not allergic. It is important to understand the difference, as one is purely a gut reaction, while the other involves the immune system.
    Also, most milk alternatives are fortified with Vitamin D to the same levels of milk (check the label), though the sun is still the best source of this vitamin.

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