The main goal of our research project was to work alongside Grow Hartford, a food justice organization in Hartford, CT, to bring attention to the decisions made regarding HPS’ school nutrition. Essential research we’ve reviewed on food injustice is both Canadian and U.S based. However, more research should be done in the U.S school system to continue developing an understanding of the U.S context. Overall, our research has shown that holistically approaching school nutrition by assessing food policies, food oppression, and school nutrition’s impact on education can alleviate some challenges.
School Food Nutrition in Education Research
School Nutrition is often an overlooked component of educational research (Weaver-Hightower 15). While the importance of eating healthy, nutritious meals is commonly understood, more research can be done to actively address nutrition issues in schools. Education research often regards the mind and body as components that function separately. However, education scholars should consider this correlation more seriously, as school food has been proven to impact both the health and academic performance of students and the health and job performance of school staff. (Rojas 25-46; Weaver-Hightower 15-21). “It is important to recognize that what goes on in the cafeteria may be influencing students’ scores. We ignore such nutritional confounding at our peril. Instead, we might productively ask, What positive or negative influences does food (or hunger) have on the scores of students participating in my study?” (Weaver-Hightower 17). Therefore, it’s unwise to avoid discovering links between school food and education to safeguard the wellbeing of children and school staff.
Schools should play a pivotal role in educating students and their families about healthy food choices, the implications of certain foods’ production for the environment, social justice movements surrounding food, money invested in food production, foods’ influence on students’ identities, and educational policies and politics. However, they could alienate or stigmatize families with inadequate access to, knowledge of, or a preference for the food choices available at school (Mcisaac 18-22). Researchers would do well to consider food more centrally in education research as overlooking school nutrition can be detrimental to many communities.
Marginalized communities are deeply impacted by food oppression and poor nutrition options, oftentimes both within schools and in their neighborhoods (Ashe 1020-1027). This segment of food oppression is enacted through institutional policies, marketing practices, economic systems, and the USDA’s profit interest.
Segregation and institutional racism are heavily ingrained in American society, and the fast food industry is no exception to perpetuating these standards (Freeman, “Fast Food” 1-33). “African-Americans have a forty percent higher rate of death from heart disease, thirty percent higher death rate from all cancers, and two hundred percent higher death rate from prostate cancer. Latinos are more likely than whites or African Americans to suffer from high blood pressure, obesity, tuberculosis, and diabetes.” (Freeman, “Fast Food” 4). These examples are direct results of the institutional racism embodied in food policies nationwide. Communities of color that suffer food oppression through fast food often have very few nutritional choices as their neighborhoods lack grocery stores but are replete with fast food restaurants and convenience stores. When schools and communities are poor and simultaneously have limited options, it is easy to see that healthy eating is not always an individualistic choice, but instead a product of systems and environmental designs. (Ashe 1020-1027)
Fast food companies have a lot to gain from marketing to low income communities of color because they are typically vulnerable populations (Freeman, “Fast Food” 1-33). “Not only does the fast food industry exploit the market forces that drive supermarkets and produce stands out of low-income urban neighborhoods, but it also specifically targets African Americans and Latinos through race-based marketing and advertising, and expends extensive resources lobbying the government for subsidies, exemptions, endorsements, and other perks.” (Freeman, “Fast Food” 1).This information exemplified how food oppression against communities of color isn’t coincidental; instead, fast food corporations have engineered specific processes which disempowers these communities’ abilities to access healthier foods, including using the government, an entity charged with protecting the welfare of its citizens, to further their corporate gains.
Economic factors also play a significant role in food oppression. Oftentimes, access to healthy foods is more costly for low income communities than it is to purchase fast food. Freeman states, “Fast food tends to offer more bang for the buck, calories for dollars, making it a sound economic choice for many low-income African American and Latina/o households. Fast food corporations exploit these harsh realities by devoting millions of dollars to race-targeted marketing annually.” (Freeman, “Whiteness” 1254). In addition to inaccessibility to healthy food choices, low income communities often find fast food appealing because it is less expensive and more convenient, which fast food corporations exploit.
The USDA also profits from food oppression. Particularly, dairy products are promoted through marketing campaigns by the USDA. Milk is highly encouraged in school food and other food industries in the US. Freeman states, “The USDA’s efforts to reduce the high-fat milk surplus by selling it to fast food consumers impose health costs on Americans generally, but disproportionately harm low-income African Americans and Latina/os who live in urban centers dominated by fast food restaurants.” (Freeman, “Whiteness” 1252). Thus, the health risks that communities of color suffer from fast food are further compounded by the encouragement of the USDA through the sale of milk. The USDA sets dietary guidelines for schools and the general population, yet also promotes the production and sale of dairy products to an industry that consistently targets people of color who are largely unable to digest those products (Freeman, “Whiteness” 1251-1279). Because the USDA is responsible for school food meal programs, this incentive is even more troubling. “Since 1980, the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services have jointly published the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. These Guidelines serve as the basis for the widely disseminated food pyramid in addition to government-sponsored food and nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program…” (Freeman, “Whiteness” 1264). The dichotomous role of the USDA – expanding the market for agricultural products while charged with improving national health – is a clear conflict of interest whose weight falls largely on marginalized communities.
School Lunch Policy Analysis
School lunch policies also have a substantial impact on students’ dietary habits. When policy does not support healthy nutrition habits, it is hard for students to maintain healthy lifestyles. Research by Cullen, et al., found that children reduced their consumption of unhealthy foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and chips, and made improvements with consuming foods that are rich in nutritional value, such as vitamins A and C, when effective school nutrition policy was implemented (111-117). In addition, such policies lead to more nutritionally balanced school lunch diets in terms of fat consumption, low sugar intake, and fresh, local produce daily (Cohen 2296-2301, Mcisaac 18-22, Micha 1). Access to healthier options for students leads to improved academic performance (Mcisaac 18-22).
These findings support the importance of effective school nutrition policy in public schools. Good school lunch policy also positively impacts school staff and the local economy (Rojas 25-46; Weaver-Hightower 15-21). Teachers and administrators have better work performance when they have access to healthier foods at school. (Weaver-Hightower 15-21). Overall, there is much to gain from establishing positive school food policy, especially for people of color who are statistically more prone to unhealthy ailments from the food industry (Freeman, “Fast Food” 1-33).
The research from this literature review has unearthed significant points: segments of the food industry have strategically contributed to the dietary marginalization of communities of color, the correlation between healthy school foods and the level of academic or professional performance should be further examined, and effective school nutrition policies contribute to healthier nutrition for children.