Healthier School Meals: Better Academic Performance, Better Economic Opportunity

A new report from the Campaign to End Obesity examining the economic impact of healthier school lunches serves as a long-awaited validation of Real Food for Kids’ advocacy work with our school systems.

As implemented in many school districts across the country, The National School Lunch Program is an under-leveraged resource in lowering childhood obesity, increasing academic performance and elevating economic opportunity.

The report illustrates how healthier school meals may contribute to lower childhood obesity rates and improve outcomes for children, both during their school years and into adulthood.

Last year, Real Food for Kids launched The Lunch Room Collective, a collaborative of public and private partners. dedicated to raising the profile of and conversation around school meals as a catalyst for change in public health and advance programs and policies leading to a systematic change in the way we feed students.

Lower childhood obesity rates have the potential to increase academic performance and boost educational attainment, such as high school graduation and higher education. Researchers have already drawn the link between healthier foods consumed at schools and increased test scores, citing students’ ability to pay attention in class, have fewer absences and fewer behavioral issues as the benefits.

Obesity-related illnesses can interfere with a student’s ability to do well in the classroom, both academically and physically. Obesity in children has been connected with lower high school graduation rates and lower college attendance, impacting job opportunities and wage growth.

Adults with higher levels of educational attainment tend to have better job opportunities and earnings potential. Healthy-weight adults are, on average, more productive at work and miss fewer work days. As a result, research finds that they often earn higher wages than adults with obesity.

Because childhood obesity is a strong predictor of adult obesity – up to 95% – lowering childhood obesity should lead to lower rates of adult obesity. Today, the rate of obesity among U.S. adults exceeds 35% in seven states, 30% in 22 states and 25% in 19 states. Obese adults are those with a Body Mass Index, or BMI, over 30. Adults with obesity and related diseases face medical expenses up to 100% greater than healthy-weight adults.

The Campaign report uses findings from numerous academic studies in economics, public policy, and public health to illustrate the connections between healthier school meals and childhood obesity, academic, and economic outcomes.

Among the findings, if healthier school meals were implemented in all public elementary schools, are:

  • 200,000 fewer children with obesity in each annual class
  • Higher academic attainment: 40,000 additional high school graduates, 9,000 additional college graduates – per year
  • Increased yearly income of $1.1 billion – for each annual class – a lifetime increase of $44 billion
  • $3.8 billion lifetime savings in obesity-related healthcare costs

“Taken together, each annual class of students receiving healthier school lunches throughout their elementary school career would generate $47.8 billion of lifetime benefits for themselves and the US economy.”

The number of obese children in the United States has tripled in the last three decades. During the same period, the adult obesity rate has also increased significantly, in part due to children with obesity becoming adults with obesity.

For many students, food sold and served at school, through breakfast and lunch programs as well as vended snacks and bottled drinks, makes up a substantial part of their diet. More than 30 million students nationwide participate in the National School Meals Program; 51% qualify for free or reduced-price meals. For children from low-income families especially, school meals are a critical source of affordable, healthy foods.

If healthier school meals can improve health outcomes, lead to better academic performance, higher educational attainment, increased opportunities in the workforce and economic growth, as well as significantly reduce spiraling healthcare costs, it is critical to support policies that meet or exceed nutrition standards for school meals and snacks, but also examine environmental factors in our school cafeterias that impact students’ eating behaviors, work now underway through The Lunch Room Collective.

It is also essential to support local school nutrition professionals in advancing culinary initiatives that can lead to these improved outcomes for our students. In many cases, this involves shifting the mindset of our school district leaders toward a more whole-child focus, embracing school meals as an integral piece of the academic experience.

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The State of Obesity: Not All Good News

Nearly one-fifth of America’s children are obese.


Since 1980, the rate of obesity among children 2 to 11 years old has doubled. Among teenagers 12 to 19, it has quadrupled.

In the U.S., childhood obesity alone is estimated to cost $14 billion annually in direct health expenses.

The likelihood of an obese child becoming an obese adult is as high as 95%.

Current estimates for healthcare costs related to obesity range from $147 billion to $210 billion.

State of Obesity MapFor more than a decade, the annual The State of Obesity report, a collaborative project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has “raised awareness about the seriousness of the obesity epidemic, encouraged the creation of a national obesity prevention strategy and highlighted promising approaches for reversing the epidemic at the state and local level.”

After encouraging trends reported in 2017, there is now mixed news. The rates of adult obesity increased in six states, but remained stable elsewhere. In seven states, the obesity rate was above 35% and in 29 states the rate was at or above 30%.

But there is encouraging news among rates for our very youngest children which could signal a shift in eating behaviors that may reverse these trends.

Between 2010 and 2014, among 2 to 4 year-olds enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), rates of obesity dropped from 15.9% to 14.5%. This decrease was seen across 31 states. Statewide policies for healthy eating and physical activity were two of the most significant interventions contributing to these drops.

dsc00100-vert-25percentFor school-aged children, ages 5-18, the focus of Real Food for Kids’ work, new school meal standards are also beginning to have an impact. Harvard researchers estimate the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids nutrition standards of 2012 will prevent 2+ million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in health-care related costs over 10 years.  A study of  public schools in four New Jersey cities found that the updated standards have not affected participation in meal programs and that students are gladly choosing healthier options.

High schoolers may be the most difficult of these groups to influence. Nearly one-third are overweight or obese according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Less than 74% of high school students get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day; 43% spend three or more hours glued to technology not related to school. Encouraging, though, is that soda consumption is down and water consumption up, and the number of high schoolers not consuming fruits or vegetables is low.

These trends can help schools identify where more efforts are needed to help teens eat healthier and be more active. Offering healthy meals, snacks, and drinks throughout the day, providing time for physical activity, and educating students about healthy options are some strategies that schools and after-school programs can put in place to help kids establish lifelong healthy habits.

For eight years, Real Food for Kids has focused on working with school systems to improve meal quality, increase participation and elevate the dining experience as a desired option for all students. Despite improvements, the perception of school meals as undesirable continues to cling. Re-introducing families to these programs and connecting the school meals experience with health outcomes and academic attainment is what continues to spur our mission, The State of Obesity report demonstrates why this work is and continues to be critical.

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The State of Obesity report is based on the latest data and trends on childhood and adult obesity from major surveys that track rates at the national and state level, including the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the National Survey of Children’s Health, the WIC Participant and Program Characteristics, and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Hunger In D.C: The Real Truth

by Madden Marlais

Madden attends Capital Hill Day School in Washington, D.C. He is in 8th grade.


Childhood food insecurity throughout D.C. is a problem, but is an issue wherever you live. Food insecurity refers to the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. These food insecure households also have children in them. These children, who are smart and capable are suddenly not able focus because their family cannot afford or access food. Children who suffer from food insecurity have a disadvantage in school. Children who live in specific wards in D.C, have a disadvantage because of the food insecurity in their ward. As JoAnne Hammermaster, Co-founder and Executive Director of Real Food for Kids said, “When children are hungry, you can see the difference in their behavior and how they act than when they are not.” The lack of food security causes negative effects on children’s education as well as their academic achievement. Schools can address this issue by providing meals for students who are hungry to improve academic achievement.


Children who are hungry behave worse in schools. As a Principal at Daisy Bates Elementary School said about his students, “When kids are hungry, they have a hard time doing the easiest things — like getting from the bus to class or behaving in the hallways.” This principle was having trouble with students’ behavior just because they were hungry. So, they decided to implement a school breakfast. The principal said, “Not only were we able to help kids that were obviously suffering from lack of food, but once we introduced breakfast, referrals to my office for behavior problems went down by two-thirds. And math scores went up by 18%!”


This improvement happened after they decided to implement food breakfast.  If implementing breakfast improved that much of their problems, all schools should do it. According to a journal of the American Dietetic Association “Having nutritionally adequate foods is crucial to growth and development of kids.” School breakfast is helping provide those adequate foods for the children who need it.


Food insecurity for children is a particularly huge problem in D.C. According to Feeding America, 23.6% of children in D.C have food insecurity. This number is very high compared to the national food insecurity rate of 8%. Childhood food insecurity is the percentage of children under eighteen years old living in households that experience limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods at some point during the year. Children who are food insecure, are more likely to misbehave in school, causing more suspensions, trouble and all-around negative effects. The problem of food insecurity should be solved because it will provide more opportunities for students to learn and behave well.


According to the Food Research and Action Center, 67.7% of students eat free and reduced priced breakfast. This program improves kids’ achievement and helps kids focus in schools. Having a school breakfast is very important. This will provide more opportunities for kids because of this breakfast. According to an Assessment of the Nutrition Education Needs of Day Care Providers “When you are not hungry, you are more likely to do better in school.” Children who eat reduced priced school breakfast do better in school. Students are less hungry in school which makes them behave better. School breakfast in D.C will help end children’s hunger getting in the way of their academic achievement.


Hunger negatively affects kids in D.C. because of their location. In D.C. wards 7 and 8, there are only three full-service grocery stores. These three stores have to cover over 150,000 people in 17.2 square miles. These wards also have the lowest test scores in D.C. According to D.C. Action for Children “Ward 3 boasts pass rates (scores of proficient or above) that are 41 to 56 percentage points higher than pass rates in Wards 7 and 8.” These inequities cause children to suffer because of their location. Children struggle in school because they only have three grocery stores in such a large space. If ward 3 has nine grocery stores and has much better test scores, but Wards 7 and 8 have lower test scores, and less grocery stores, these two statistics directly correlate. The inequity in food in D.C. causes children’s academic achievement to be lessened because of where they live.


The lack of food security causes negative effects on children’s behavior and their academic achievement. Schools can address this issue by providing meals for students who are hungry to improve their success in school. Addressing this issue is important for children in D.C. to aid them in their path to academic achievement. School breakfast as well as making food more accessible in D.C. is aiding school hunger. Adding these needs not only will improve the academic achievement of D.C., children’s health, their grades, and students’ behavior will improve as well. This is crucial for children to mature to be able to provide a better life for themselves as adults. Schools in D.C. should work harder towards improving children’s achievement to better their lives and the lives of others around them.

Local High School Student Launches Free Fitness Program for Financially Challenged Families

Mason Bram
Mason Bram (center) with Fit Family participants

With two-thirds of the American population currently overweight, Mason Bram, an Oakton High School senior, realized the U.S. is rapidly approaching a nationwide epidemic of obesity. Upon completing a year-long school research project on childhood obesity, Bram decided to develop the Fit Family Program to help low income families access healthy lifestyle opportunities not typically available to them. “Many families do not possess the knowledge or means to eat a balanced diet or develop their own physical fitness regimen,” says Mason. Her partner in this endeavor? Her father, a certified personal trainer.


Fit Family is a twice weekly, four-week, cost-free, fundamental personal training program, focused on basic fundamental plyometric and cardiovascular exercises. Bram tailored the program for children 12 and up, young adults, and their parents. Participants learn how to safely and effectively exercise their entire bodies with minimal equipment, meaning what they learn with her at the gym can continue at home. Participants also receive individualized advice on how to improve to their eating habits.


“I think it’s important for kids to be exposed to physical fitness activity in a welcoming environment,” said Bram.  “Just as important as exercise, a nutritious and balanced diet will allow them to maintain a healthy lifestyle. While improving physical fitness for today’s youth is important for me, I think it’s also cool that parents and their children develop a passion for physical fitness and healthy eating together.”


Bram held her first session on August 8 at FitHealth Gym in Herndon. Three families took part in the program over the summer and Bram is hoping by sharing her story she can “make this big!” She also runs an online training program to reach out to families without transportation or to those who don’t live in the area. She has a private Facebook group of 20 for that, including one participant from Canada.


One of the participants, Bethany Cobb, participated in the program because she wants to learn the benefits of living an active lifestyle. “I want to lead by example,” said Cobb, as a single mother, I have the full responsibility to demonstrate how to make healthy life choices.”


For more information on Fit Family, contact Coach Mason Bram.


The FCPS “Clean Team

Food Additives

What’s in School Food?

There is a lot of attention today about what we eat and where it comes from. Did you know that Fairfax County Public Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) has been working hard since 2011 to source products that are free of harmful artificial additives, dyes, and preservatives?

It is not an easy process. Real Food for Kids (RFFK) has been advocating for these healthy changes and has learned a lot over the years. The school food program is incredibly complicated. As much as we want changes overnight, change takes time.

RFFK recently spoke with two of the people in FNS who dedicate a lot of their working time to this endeavor: Ruth Matoto, and Teresa Hinds.

In their technical specifications, FNS requires that most foods are free of the following items: artificial flavors, red 40, yellow 5 & 6, blue colorant, BHA, BHT, MSG, HFCS, potassium bromate, and several others. FNS uses the Chemical Cuisine guidelines set out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to help determine which items to eliminate, which RFFK supports.

One of their biggest challenges is using products that constantly change:  manufacturers consistently make small formulation changes to their products. So the FNS team has to be very diligent in tracking all of the changes to ensure the products continue to meet their specifications, and that they have posted those changes to the website.

When asked about one of the most difficult items to eliminate, they point to nitrites. Matoto notes that “Students love their pepperoni!” It is very challenging to find a pepperoni product free of nitrites. But Matoto also notes that they are working very hard in sourcing meat and poultry products free of antibiotics, as cost constraints permit. The demand is growing stronger, so manufacturers are starting to listen. Organizations are helping to drive that change, such as School Food Focus, a national collaborative that ignites change in the school food system by connecting districts and food businesses across the supply chain to put healthy meals on kids’ school plates. One of their main initiatives is working with manufacturers to provide more antibiotic-free poultry for schools.

Another area of concern in school food is allergies, which have grown to epidemic proportions in schools across the country. Hinds point out that it is virtually impossible to remove all allergens in the food served to students in today’s environment, as allergies and even sensitivities to food are going to get worse. Because of these issues, ingredient information is available on the FCPS website for parents to determine if their child can eat certain items on the menu.

RFFK has seen the changes in the last several years as schools work towards products free of additives. Both Matoto and Hinds note that more products will be made available once the demand in the retail market also pushes changes through. Many major retail grocery stores have started their own lines of products free of additives, so we believe the changes will come – in time.

In the meantime, Matoto and Hinds work hard every day for the students in FCPS. Students may not know that artificial ingredients have been progressively eliminated from the food they purchase in the cafeteria, but it is important to many parents in the district. As parents, we thank Food and Nutrition Services for all their hard work!


Decoding Your Kid’s Sugar High

Shehla Dhar
George Mason University
MS Nutrition Candidate, School of Nutrition and Food Studies


As a parent of two growing kids, I have always focused on feeding them nutrient-dense foods and steering away from the empty calories in high sugar, energy-dense foods. Energy-dense foods have been linked to increased rates of childhood diabetes and obesity, to name a few.

So, naturally, at a recent birthday party, I requested small portions of cake for my kids, expecting they would have a “sugar rush” and go “hyper” after they ate it.

It turns out that expectation may be all wrong.

While there are plenty of reasons for avoiding high sugar food, the evidence that sugar makes kids hyper may not stand up. Yes, there are children, and adults, who have adverse sugar reactions, but the reason most kids seem “hyper” after sugar intake, is that the circumstances surrounding that sugar intake is often what leads to the uptick in energy. Take a birthday party for example. These are rarely low-key, so when a high-energy event is paired with a sugary treat, the result can be explosive.

Let’s take a look at some interesting research. In a study, boys, reported to be behaviorally “sugar sensitive,” were randomly assigned – along with their mothers – to experimental and control groups. Mothers in the experimental group were told their boys were receiving a large dose of sugar. Mothers in the control group were told their boys were getting a placebo. However, researchers gave both groups the placebo. The intent was to measure the parents’ expectation of what might happen. And interestingly, mothers who were told their boys received a high dose of sugar rated the children as far more hyperactive.

At a party, when kids are having fun they inevitably get more excited. That’s usually followed by over-tired and cranky. As a parent, I tend to look at how much sugary stuff they’ve had and assume a link. And I’m not alone. Parents who believe this link exists believe they see it.

While research shows that sugar may not be linked to hyperactivity, there is a definite link to obesity, diabetes, cavities and host of other health issues for our kids. The rise of artificial sweeteners should raise the alarm too, as these chemicals may be equally as harmful to our children’s health. As parents, it is our responsibility to make sure our kids understand that while having a sugary treat is okay sometimes, having a balanced diet supports having fun all the time.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links to explore:

Does Sugar Really Make You Kids Hyper?

New Evidence for a Direct Sugar-Diabets Link

Sugar doesn’t make kids hyper and other parenting myths

Does Sugar Make Kids Hyper?




Beech Tree ES Kicks Off 2017 with New Salad Bar


Beech Tree ES is the latest elementary school to join the FCPS Salad Bar Family with its opening on January 11. Students were anxiously awaiting the opening when they returned from the Winter Break.

Cafeteria Host “Miss Amy” shared that the students lined up at the cafeteria doors each day asking “is it today???” As with previous salad bar openings, some students took modest amounts while others piled their plates with fresh lettuce, chicken, grapes, cheese and carrots.


Miss Amy, who has been cafeteria host for six years, said this is one of the most exciting things to happen on her watch. She noted that, in the past, fruits and vegetables the students were required to take often ended up in the trash, but with the salad bar she was seeing many kids take big servings and very little waste. “When they get to choose what they like, they take more.”

Ten more salad bars will open this school year. The next will be Hutchison ES on January 25. Thirty-two salad bars are slated for opening next year. Real Food for Kids will play a continuing role in supporting FCPS Food and Nutrition Services with these openings.

For more information on requesting a salad bar at your school or support your school with an upcoming opening, email

“Pear”ing Up with RFFK Alexandria

img_1042Last month, Real Food for Kids Alexandria hosted a food tasting at Mount Vernon Community School. Fresh, local pears donated by Toigo Orchards were given to students to try out as a healthy snack during lunch time.

Kids raved about the sweet, crunchy, juicy snack. RFFK Alexandria is holding similar food tastings throughout Alexandria City Public Schools on a quarterly basis.

Watch a video of the pear tasting.

For more information on the Real Food for Kids Alexandria chapter, email

SPOTLIGHT: Real Food for Kids Alexandria

cafeteriahallway-croppedCharles Barrett Elementary School, one of eight in the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) system, launched the first “Greens & More Bar” last October. ACPS plans to implement Greens & More Bars at all elementary schools in the district as part of grant-funded program.

Now every Barrett student who goes through the lunch line is served a hot entrée and then steps over to the Greens & More Bar to select whichever fruits and vegetables they wish. Although some students opt only for the vegetable or juice in the lunch line, most head to the salad bar to load up on fresh options. Barrett cafeteria manager, Dawn Lendino, says right now kids prefer fruits over vegetables with their favorite items being apple and orange slices, cucumbers and lettuce.

sethnancyincostumeReal Food for Kids Alexandria assisted ACPS with the rollout of Greens & More by building excitement for the launch. Students decorated empty walls outside the cafeteria with vegetable-themed drawings and during the first week the bar was open, parents helped students acclimate to the new process, such as reminding them to sanitize their hands and how to use utensils correctly and hygienically. But most fun was the student incentive – RFFK Alexandria promised that if all students tried the salad bar, their principals would dress up as vegetables!

For more information on the Real Food for Kids Alexandria chapter, send an email to

Service Learning with Real Food for Kids


RFFK participated in the first FCPS Service Learning Fair at West Potomac HS on January 12. The purpose of the fair was to introduce students to local non-profits with whom they might establish a service learning project. Different from service “hours,” or volunteer time that all students must complete, service learning offers an enriched, authentic learning experience that meets a community need, forming a deeper connection that resonates long after the service is complete.

Students presented RFFK with a variety of interests from sports to nursing to working with kids, all of which can tie into a service learning project benefiting the work we do in the community. If you have a student with an interest in exploring a service learning opportunity with us, please contact us,