Nutrition Education in US Schools
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.2
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Comprehensive Framework for Addressing the School Nutrition Environment and Services. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2019.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School health guidelines to promote healthy eating and physical activity. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;60(RR-5):1–76.
- Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards. National Health Education Standards: Achieving Excellence. 2nd ed. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2007.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool, 2012, Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services; 2012. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/hecat/index.htm. Accessed April 9, 2019.
- Price C, Cohen D, Pribis P, Cerami J. Nutrition education and body mass index in grades K–12: a systematic review. J Sch Health. 2017;87:715–720.
- Meiklejohn S, Ryan L, Palermo C. A systematic review of the impact of multi-strategy nutrition education programs on health and nutrition of adolescents. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2016;48:631–646.
- Silveira JA, Taddei JA, Guerra PH, Nobre MR. The effect of participation in school-based nutrition education interventions on body mass index: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled community trials. Prev Med. 2013;56:237–243.
- County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. School-based Nutrition Education Programs website. http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/take-action-to-improve-health/what-works-for-health/policies/school-based-nutrition-education-programsexternal icon. Accessed on April 9, 2019.
- Results from the School Health Policies and Practices Study 2014. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2014.
- Connell DB, Turner RR, Mason EF. Results of the school health education evaluation: health promotion effectiveness, implementation, and costs. J Sch Health. 1985;55(8):316–321.
- Institute of Medicine. Nutrition Education in the K–12 Curriculum: The Role of National Standards: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2014.
- Murimi MW, Moyeda-Carabaza AF, Nguyen B, Saha S, Amin R, Njike V. Factors that contribute to effective nutrition education interventions in children: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2018;76(8):553–580.
- Hayes D, Contento IR, Weekly C. Position of the American Dietetic Association, School Nutrition Association, and Society for Nutrition Education: comprehensive school nutrition services. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018; 118:913–919.
- Joshi A, Misako Azuma A, Feenstra G. Do farm-to-school programs make a difference? Findings and future research needs. J Hunger Environ Nutr. 2008;3:229–246.
- Moss A, Smith S, Null D, Long Roth S, Tragoudas U. Farm to school and nutrition education: Positively affecting elementary school-aged children’s nutrition knowledge and consumption behavior. Child Obes. 2013;9(1):51–6.
- Bontrager Yoder AB, Liebhart JL, McCarty DJ, Meinen A, Schoeller D, Vargas C, LaRowe T. Farm to elementary school programming increases access to fruits and vegetables and increases their consumption among those with low intake. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2014;46(5):341–9.
- The National Farm to School Network. The Benefits of Farm to School website. http://www.farmtoschool.org/Resources/BenefitsFactSheet.pdfpdf iconexternal icon. Accessed on June 14, 2019.
- Berezowitz CK, Bontrager Yoder AB, Schoeller DA. School gardens enhance academic performance and dietary outcomes in children. J Sch Health. 2015;85:508–518.
- Davis JN, Spaniol MR, Somerset S. Sustenance and sustainability: maximizing the impact of school gardens on health outcomes. Public Health Nutr. 2014;18(13):2358–2367.
- Langellotto GA, Gupta A. Gardening increases vegetable consumption in school-aged children: A meta-analytical synthesis. Horttechnology. 2012;22(4):430–445.
- Community Preventative Services Task Force. Nutrition: Gardening Interventions to Increase Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Children. Finding and Rationale Statement.. https://www.thecommunityguide.org/sites/default/files/assets/Nutrition-Gardening-Fruit-Vegetable-Consumption-Children-508.pdfpdf iconexternal icon. Accessed on May 16, 2019.
- Savoie-Roskos MR, Wengreen H, Durward C. Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake among Children and Youth through Gardening-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2017;11(2):240–50.
- Schwartz M. The influence of a verbal prompt on school lunch fruit consumption: a pilot study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2007;4:6.
- Fulkerson JA, French SA, Story M, Nelson H, Hannan PJ. Promotions to increase lower-fat food choices among students in secondary schools: description and outcomes of TACOS (Trying Alternative Cafeteria Options in Schools). Public Health Nutr. 2003;7(5):665–674.
- Action for Healthy Kids. Tips for Hosting a Successful Taste Test website. http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/tools-for-schools/find-challenges/classroom-challenges/701-tips-for-hosting-a-successful-taste-testexternal icon. Accessed on May 19, 2019.