Nutrition Education in US Schools

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Schools play an important role in helping students establish healthy eating behaviors, by providing:

  • Nutritious and appealing foods and beverages.
  • Consistent and accurate messages about good nutrition.
  • Ways to learn about and practice healthy eating.1

Nutrition education is a vital part of a comprehensive health education program and empowers children with knowledge and skills to make healthy food and beverage choices.2-8 

Making opportunities for nutrition education in schools is important.

US students receive less than 8 hours of required nutrition education each school year,9 far below the 40 to 50 hours that are needed to affect behavior change.10,11 Additionally, the percentage of schools providing required instruction on nutrition and dietary behaviors decreased from 84.6% to 74.1% between 2000 and 2014.9

Given the important role that diet plays in preventing chronic diseases and supporting good health, schools would ideally provide students with more hours of nutrition education instruction and engage teachers and parents in nutrition education activities.5, 12  Research shows that nutrition education can teach students to recognize how healthy diet influences emotional well-being and how emotions may influence eating habits. However, because schools face many demands, school staff can consider ways to add nutrition education into the existing schedule.11

Schools can include nutrition education throughout the school day.

Nutrition education can be incorporated throughout the school day and in various locations within a school. This provides flexibility allowing schools to use strategies that work with their settings, daily schedule, and resources.

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In the Classroom

Nutrition education can take place in the classroom, either through a stand-alone health education class or combined into other subjects including2,5:

  • Counting with pictures of fruits and vegetables.
  • Learning fractions by measuring ingredients for a recipe.
  • Examining how plants grow.
  • Learning about cultural food traditions.

Nutrition education should align with the National Health Education Standards and incorporate the characteristics of an effective health education curriculum.

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Farm to School

Farm-to-school programs vary in each school or district, but often include one or more of the following strategies:

  • Purchasing and serving local or regionally produced foods in the school meal programs.
  • Educating students about agriculture, food, health, and nutrition.
  • Engaging students in hands-on learning opportunities through gardening, cooking lessons, or farm field trips.

Students who participate in farm-to-school activities have increased knowledge about nutrition and agriculture, are more willing to try new foods, and consume more fruits and vegetables.14-17

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School Gardens

School garden programs can increase students’ nutrition knowledge, willingness to try fruit and vegetables, and positive attitudes about fruits and vegetables.18-22 School gardens vary in size and purpose. Schools may have window sill gardens, raised beds, greenhouses, or planted fields.

Students can prepare the soil for the garden, plant seeds, harvest the fruits and vegetables, and taste the food from the garden. Produce from school gardens can be incorporated into school meals or taste tests. Classroom teachers can teach lessons in math, science, history, and language arts using the school garden.

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In the Cafeteria

Cafeterias are learning labs where students are exposed to new foods through the school meal program, see what balanced meals look like, and may be encouraged to try new foods through verbal prompts from school nutrition staff, 23 or taste tests.24-25 Cafeterias may also be decorated with nutrition promotion posters or student artwork promoting healthy eating.24

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Other Opportunities During the School Day

Schools can add messages about nutrition and healthy eating into the following:

  • Morning announcements.
  • School assemblies.
  • Materials sent home to parents and guardians.24
  • Staff meetings.
  • Parent-teacher group meetings.

These strategies can help reinforce messages about good nutrition and help ensure that students see and hear consistent information about healthy eating across the school campus and at home.