It was eight years ago that I left middle school science behind and stepped foot in front of a room full of antsy 4th graders. It was one of the scariest moves I had made in my educational career. And I have to confess that those little kids gave me quite a run for my money. But they were also some of the cutest kids I’d ever laid eyes on.
Early in that school year we were writing a persuasive essay that led me to bring in veggies for a harvest soup. I held up a bunch of carrots that I had pulled from my home garden. “What are these?” I asked enthusiastically, fully expecting to get a group, “Duh, carrots,” response. But what I got instead was absolute silence which was a new sound for that room. Not one child knew what they were. I was shocked and baffled. How could this be possible? That little exchange, or lack of, started my quest to bring healthy foods and nutrition education to my kids and my school. And each year as our efforts increased the evidence supporting the needs for schools to serve healthy food increased as well. If you want kids to learn, then feed them nutrient dense foods and get rid of the prepackaged, processed, sugar filled foods. And if you want kids to eat good food then help them grow it.
I wish I could say that this notion has always been wildly and enthusiastically embraced but I’d be doing you a disservice to tell you something so untrue. This has been an uphill climb from day one and while the hill isn’t as steep as it once was, it remains. There are several things that come into play. Old habits die hard. Old belief systems die hard. And those who hold onto those habits and belief systems can feel very defensive when their long held behaviors are challenged. This is understandable! But it’s not understandable enough to not push forward. Our kids need and deserve to know what real food is.
Over the course of these eight years our gardening program has expanded from a small herb garden on a classroom windowsill to five raised beds on our asphalt playground. It also includes indoor growlabs in six classrooms as well as one in our hallway. Because of a new FoodCorps service member, gardening , cooking, and nutrition education in some form have visited every classroom in our school. The goal of these gardening opportunities is to increase our kids exposure to and understanding of growing and eating good food.
So while this is all fine and dandy, you may rightfully wonder what this has to do with literacy. Research shows over and over again that kids who eat healthy foods learn better. While I have yet to find research specific on the connection between eating nutritious foods and learning to read and write, that connection seems as much of a head slap duh idea as any. But it does not appear that way to all even though reading and writing are the foundations for every subject in school. Recently I came across the following passage in a textbook I am reading for a class I am taking for my CAS in Literacy from the University of Southern Maine. While the research source was not specified I find it interesting none the less. In the book, Understanding, Assessing, Teaching Reading – A Diagnostic Approach by Michael Optiz and James Erekson, there is a passage that discusses nutrition. In one paragraph they go so far as to say, “The effects of nutrition, and particularly malnutrtiotion, on learning have been evident for a long time. Not surprising, nutrition is a major factor, as is the type of food that children consume. Is it any wonder that many children have trouble performing in school when they eat processed foods that contain a lot of sugar?” (bold and italics are mine). I have to admit that when I read that I stopped dead in my tracks. Did I just read a graduate level reading text specifically addressing the notion that processed foods and sugar interfere with kids learning? I sure did. But I didn’t need to read that in a book to know that it is true.
This topic is all over the internet. It does’t take a lot of research to read that kids who eat healthy food, aka non-processed, corn syrup filled foods, do better in school and in life. Here is one quote from one of the many resources available on the internet. “This is such an important issue that in 2010, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (then known as American Dietetic Association), School Nutrition Association and Society for Nutrition Education jointly called for comprehensive, integrated nutrition services for students from kindergarten through high school as a means of not only improving students’ nutritional status and health, but also their academic performance. In other words, the organizations maintain it’s key for schools to provide students with nutritious foods and beverages and also to teach them why eating well is important.” http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/storage/documents/pdfs/afhk_thelearningconnection_digitaleditiopdf
It is obvious that as reading educators, and we are all reading educators, we value the roll that healthy eating plays on our kids’ academic achievement and happiness. We want our kids eating healthy breakfasts, snacks, and lunches at school. We may or may not have much of a say in that however. But what we can easily do to help this is to integrate healthy eating and gardening into their reading and writing whenever possible. That is really the perfect connection…reading, and writing, and food/gardening.
So next time you open a book to read to your kids or your kids open books to read to themselves or each other, be sure to pull out some carrots and enjoy a healthy snack that develops brains in a way that boosts their academic success.