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Brain Food. The Lunch Line’s Role in Your Grades.

IMG_0060It’s been a busy morning of classes and the hungry students funnel into the lunchroom to relieve their hunger and unwind with friends. Walking right by the live station and the freshly prepared meals, most make a beeline for the chicken baskets, chips and the cookies. Even though Flik, (the company Thornton Academy pays to make our food), would rather have us eat the healthier options they’ve prepared, students food of choice is of the fried variety.

On an average day, anywhere between 160 and 200 baskets of chicken and fries are purchased. That’s somewhere around 70-90 pounds of Tyson chicken. Most students know choosing this option every day can’t be good for their body, but they might’ve overlooked how their food choice affects their performance in school. Sophomore Romello Pura admits that the fried food is a big draw and said, “I buy salads for lunch, but I don’t eat the salad, I just get it for the chicken.”

For years, researchers have been saying students are what they eat and research confirms this often used phrase.

In our state, success in school and scores on standardized tests are in most cases mirror images of their poverty level, except in Bangor, Maine. Why is it an outlier? One big thing that separates Bangor High from other low income schools in test score results is its focus, on food. Bangor is setting itself apart by not only selling healthy food to its students, but going out and trying to get more kids enrolled in their assisted lunch program to try and get their food to more kids who would most likely skip the meal without it.

In a MPBN story by Jay Fields, it was reported that “In Bangor, 54 percent of kids meet the federal poverty guideline. Nonetheless, the district has a higher graduation rate than the state as a whole, got a B on its annual report card and performs like a system where just 6 percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced lunch.”

So what have they done to the cafeterias in the district to so impact test scores? ON September 9th, Members of a statewide task force aiming to get rid of student hunger visited Bangor to find out more about the role food the cafeteria might be playing in student success.

They found out that Bangor offers breakfast and lunch at all 10 schools, and provides an after school snack program at three schools and a fresh fruit and vegetable program at four schools.

According to a 2006 NPR story, “in one study of 4,000 elementary school students, researchers measured the effects of eating breakfast by administering a battery of attention tests…Across the board the breakfast eaters performed better than those children who had skipped breakfast.”

The story went on to say that food that is metabolized more slowly is even better. They suggested oatmeal. Just this fall, Thornton began serving an oatmeal bar at breakfast. Students can make their own and mix in things like cranberries, raisins, nuts, coconut and brown sugar.

The same NPR story cited another study from 2005 in which, Tufts University psychologist Holly Taylor “had one group of children eat sweetened oatmeal for breakfast while another ate Cap’n Crunch cereal. Then both groups were given academic tasks, like memorizing the names of countries on a map. The oatmeal eaters did up to 20 percent better than the Crunch consumers.”

But students at TA are not as convinced, freshman Garret Lynn says, “I eat cookies for lunch, but they don’t affect me.”

Thornton Academy is lucky compared to most schools. We aren’t a part of the school lunch program, so the government doesn’t play a role in the food that is brought in. This gives the school more flexibility and freedom when it comes to being able to offer students the best possible meals.

“When the government gets involved the food comes from government commodities. That means lots of processed foods, very low grade meats, canned vegetables, canned fruits…TA not being a part of the state program means that we control what comes in. Everything comes in fresh, nothing canned,” said Gevin Boland, the director of food services at Thornton

The only things that aren’t freshly prepared daily are the chicken and fries, but Boland said they have to use Tyson instead of breading and frying their own chicken every day or they would never be unable to fulfill the high student demand for these items. They walk a fine line between keeping their customers happy and trying to push them in the direction of healthy options.

Teachers know all too well the role a student’s stomach can play in their education. Even the block a class meets and whether it is before or after lunch can completely change how much learning happens.

History teacher Mrs. Sharlard said, “I can’t imagine a kid can pay attention to me when their stomach is growling.”

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