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Brain foods

In the Tulsa (Okla.) Public School District, special menus were created to enhance the students' brain function during testing weeks. More fresh fruit and whole-grain options were added to the menus, as well as those options that are high in antioxidants. During the program, breakfast participation increased 4.3%.

At A Glance: Tulsa Public Schools

•Nearly 43,000 students in 88 schools

•42,150 reimbursable meals served daily

•74% free and reduced

•Breakfast participation increased 4.3% during testing weeks, April 10-25, when Brain Foods were served

•60 elementary schools served Brain Foods at both breakfast and lunch

•Brain Foods menus increased offerings of fresh fruits and protein while decreasing or eliminating high sugar items

 

Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was signed into law, the importance of testing in schools has increased as administrators try to meet academic standards to receive federal funding. In the nearly 43,000-student Tulsa (Okla.) Public Schools, Child Nutrition Services teamed up with the district’s brain-based learning teacher—a teacher who develops educational techniques based on current psychological and neurological research in order to provide a classroom environment that is conducive to learning—to offer foods during testing weeks that, it is hoped, would increase students’ memory and attention, enhance learning and, ultimately, increase test scores.

Concentration: “This whole thing started when an administrator asked if we could serve grapes at breakfast during testing week because research had shown grapes helped a lot with things like concentration,” says Lisa Griffin, the district’s child nutrition coordinator at this Sodexo account. From this simple question, a new program was launched: Brain Foods. “I asked him if there were any other foods that the research had found to be helpful, and he said to contact Lynn McKenney. I did and that’s how Brain Foods started.”

For her part, McKenney, pathwise specialist—a teacher who supports new teachers in their first two years in education—and the district’s brain-based learning teacher, says: “We didn’t want our foods to fight against efforts the children were making in the classroom. We know that food and nutrition builds brain function, so we wanted to do something to complement what the teachers were doing in the classrooms with nutrition.”

During testing weeks, foods that were proven by research to increase the brain’s cognition, memory and alertness were substituted for the regular offerings. “Most of the foods we wanted were high in antioxidants and also high in fiber, so that there is a slow release of glucose and not a fast one that causes the blood sugars to vary,” Griffin says. “We also wanted foods high in protein, which is good for keeping the blood sugars level so students can perform well.”

Smart changes: For breakfast, Griffin says, “We normally have juice because that’s what kids tend to like and purchase. But with Brain Foods, we put out more fresh fruit, including the requested grapes, apples, oranges, bananas and blueberries. We made sure that all cereals were low in sugar. We had all whole-wheat toast instead of white and whole-grain muffins, and removed Pop Tarts. Lastly, we added more high protein foods.” She says about 30% of the breakfast menu offerings were modified to qualify as Brain Foods. Breakfast menus were changed in all 88 schools in the district and breakfast participation during testing—April 10-25—increased by 4.3% from February and March.

“For lunch, we emphasized more of the whole-grain foods and the higher protein foods that are lower in fat,” she says. “We had just started our produce bars in March, and those have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, so that worked right into the concept of Brain Foods.” Other lunch changes included adding a low-fat turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread and an increase in beans, fresh cucumbers, cauliflower, mandarin oranges and sweet potatoes. Lunch menus were changed in 60 elementary schools—secondary schools’ lunch menus were not changed because their testing schedule was different than elementary schools.

In her role as pathwise instructor, McKenney assists new teachers, provides professional development and does some in-class instruction, including piloting an assessment clinic in three schools to teach brain-based learning techniques for students to use during testing. One part of the clinic was teaching students about the importance of eating nutritious foods and drinking warm water to keep the brain hydrated and alert. “In doing this clinic, we thought, we really need to extend this to foodservice and make it district wide,” she says. “We thought people really needed to know which foods were good for their brains and that helped to prompt Brain Foods.”

Marketing support: To market the menu changes, Griffin first contacted all principals to get their support. She then took the idea to the students and parents through the district’s phone messaging system, The School Connects, which calls every parent and plays a prerecorded message. In the cafeterias, Griffin and her staff of 460 placed signs at the point of service advertising the offerings as Brain Foods that would help increase attention and memory. Both Griffin and McKenney say their efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the students. “The students said they were very pleased that we would make an effort to help support them, and that we felt they could do a good job,” Griffin says. “Lynn said it really made a difference in their self-esteem just knowing that someone was supporting and encouraging them.”

Because of the success of Brain Foods, Griffin says the program will continue next year with a few alterations. “One principal asked the cafeteria manager to continue doing Brain Foods throughout the year. I’m thinking that next year, we are going to take a good look at this because it shouldn’t just be for testing. It should be all the time to promote learning,” she says. “Food is going up in price, so we are going to have to look at what we can do. We are looking for creative ways to get more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains into our program.”

Other changes in the foodservice department for Brain Foods will be increasing the number of options that are high in antioxidants and further eliminating entrees that are higher in fat, because those tend to make students tired. McKenney also wants to see the Brain Foods menu become a permanent addition.

More involvement: Other changes to Brain Foods will include getting more departments within the district involved. “This all happened so fast. We didn’t have enough time to get everything together this year, but we are hoping to do that next year,” Griffin says. “The PE department head said that next year she is planning on having all her PE teachers work with the kids on exercises that work with both parts of the brain, which research says helps.” Additional research suggests music such as Mozart helps children concentrate and peppermint awakens the senses, aiding in alertness. “I started thinking that we needed to have Mozart played on the buses and some peppermint that the custodians could put in the rooms,” she adds.

McKenney adds, “Teachers have the ability to change brains through classroom instruction, and with Brain Foods we can do the same thing with nutrition within a school site.”

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