Many students, including those enrolled in Pasadena public schools, regularly attend classes without first receiving proper nutrition at home. 

Today, school districts around the country are trying to make up for those nutritional shortfalls, but unfortunately for some low-income families, bad food decisions have become a part of a daily diet, mainly because those are often the cheapest foods to purchase on a tight budget. Potatoes, rice, breads and cereals are all good in moderation, but in excess they can quickly pack on the pounds and contribute to the scourge of childhood obesity.

The mandate for today’s school food services is to focus on presenting meals that are appealing and tasty, with an emphasis on preparing them in a healthful way.

The Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) is making strides when it comes to addressing the nutritional needs of its students, using a collaborative approach that seeks to engage and involve students by giving them a wider array of healthier choices, as well as a voice in what’s being served.

“Over the past four years, PUSD has striven to increase the quality of our menus by eliminating prepackaged food at breakfast and lunch service districtwide,” according to a statement by the district’s Food & Nutrition Services division, headed by Ralph Peschek. “We have partnered with local companies and farms in California to increase the procurement of fresh and locally produced items. Our whole grain rich bread is made with grain grown in the Central Valley and baked locally. Our students eat wild rice grown in the Sacramento Valley. This school year we integrated garden fresh produce grown in our own PUSD school gardens into the lunch line.”

The district recently launched its first all-district food survey, aimed at giving parents a greater voice when it comes to menu offerings for their children.

In addition to actively seeking input from parents, teachers in Pasadena schools also realize the positive impact of involving children at a young age in learning about nutrition in a hands-on way. In fact, many classrooms now have vegetable gardens that the students actively tend, thus providing lessons on responsibility and increasing the likelihood these foods will be consumed.

Cooking segments in classes where students are tasked with bringing in foods from home to contribute to a meal offer prime opportunities to discuss which foods are best for growing bodies, and why certain foods are not. 

With a greater knowledge of nutrition and the role it plays in education comes a greater responsibility to creatively meet the dietary needs of all students, regardless of family income. This is no small feat, considering the cultural diversity of Pasadena’s school children, the plethora of unhealthy options available to them, as well as the sheer numbers of those who stand to benefit.

According to a July, 2014 ruling by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) applying to all beverages and snack foods sold in schools from elementary to high school, a food item must meet all competitive food-nutrient standards, be a whole-grain product containing 50 percent or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains listed as the first ingredient, or have as the first ingredient one of the non-grain major food groups: a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food, or be a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit and/or vegetable.

The simple fact is students who regularly receive a balanced diet learn better and retain more knowledge. Empirical studies show that there’s a direct correlation between poor nutrition and school absences, as well as overall cognitive function. Students with iron deficiencies show significantly reduced levels of dopamine transmission, which greatly affects brain function, including focus and concentration skills. Other studies have shown that poor nutrition and the consumption of unnecessary food additives —preservatives, sugar, excess sodium — can have a negative impact on children’s behavior, as well as their ability to learn.

School lunches crammed with starches, sugars, sodium and caffeine not only do little to satiate student hunger, but can actually thwart their chances of learning and retaining information appropriately.

A study conducted by the Society for Neuroscience (sfn.org) found that diets high in saturated fat often actively work to hinder learning and memory function. Factors such as sugars and glucose in these high-fat foods inhibit brain function because, at above-normal levels, otherwise necessary carbohydrates actually increase fatigue and decrease energy in our bodies.

For students dealing with the challenges of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other behavioral and cognitive issues, spikes and crashes that come as a result of carbohydrate overload make focus and concentration even more difficult.

As important as proper diet is to adults, the same holds doubly true for youngsters, especially during their formative years, when their systems are tasked with supporting frequent growth spurts and bourgeoning skills in critical thinking.

Savvy school districts like PUSD recognize not only the link between good nutrition and an optimal learning environment, but the importance of student input when it comes to the meals and dining options available.