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Nutrition Education in Public Elementary School Classrooms, K-5
NCES: 2000040
March 2000


The impact of diet on health has been described and documented in numerous studies and reports. Dietary recommendations and long-term health objectives, including the Dietary Guidelines for
1 and the Year 2000 Health Objectives for the Nation, 2 call for Americans to reduce intake of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; increase intake of fruits, vegetables, grain products, and foods rich in calcium; and moderate intake of sugars, salt, and alcohol.

Many Americans consume excess calories for their level of activity, and have diets inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans-too high in fat, sodium, and sugar, with not enough grains, fruits, and vegetables.

These unhealthy eating patterns may contribute to illness and premature death in the long term. 3 Because eating habits developed in childhood have the potential to last a lifetime, it is important for children to learn the benefits of good nutrition. Healthy People 2000 states as a national health objective that by the year 2000, at least 75 percent of the nation's schools will provide nutrition education from preschool through 12th grade.

Thus far, there has been little national-level information available about the quantity and quality of nutrition education in schools. In 1996, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) published results from the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) study Nutrition Education in U.S. Public Schools, K-12. 4 That study provided information from a nationally representative sample of public schools about the placement of nutrition education in the curriculum, the content of nutrition instruction, the coordination of nutrition education within the school, and the need for resources for nutrition education. Still, there was a need for data to address questions concerning the amount of nutrition instruction in classrooms and the potential effectiveness of that instruction.

This report presents findings from the survey Nutrition Education in U.S. Public Schools, Elementary Teacher Survey, K-5, requested by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It was designed as a follow-up to the 1996 school study to obtain data on nutrition education in elementary school classrooms to inform current and future USDA initiatives, including the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children. 5 This initiative, begun in 1995, adds requirements for schools to serve meals that meet federal dietary guidelines and encourages schools to teach children about nutrition so they are motivated to make healthy food choices. A pilot program for schools, called Team Nutrition, aims to improve nutrition education in classrooms. The self-administered mail survey requested information about the following issues:

  • Resources and policies for nutrition education,

  • Nutrition education in the classroom,

  • Working with the school meals program staff,

  • Working with parents,

  • Instructional materials for nutrition education, and

  • Training in nutrition education.

The goal of this study was to provide a national picture of the quantity and quality of nutrition education in public elementary school classrooms. Previous research in nutrition education was used to inform our analysis. In reviews of research about nutrition education published in a special issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education 6, several of the major researchers in this field describe both characteristics of high-quality nutrition education (i.e., effective at changing knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors) for school-aged children and the effects of training in nutrition education on teachers.

According to the authors, the following elements appear to contribute to the effectiveness of nutrition education:

  • Instruction with a behavioral focus, or a focus on changing specific behaviors rather than on learning general facts about nutrition; 7

  • Employment of active learning strategies instead of relying exclusively on information dissemination and didactic teaching methods; 8

  • Devotion of adequate time and intensity to nutrition education (it appears to take 50 hours per year to impact attitudes and behavior); 9

  • A family involvement component; 10

  • A meals program and food-related policies that reinforce classroom nutrition education; 11 and

  • Teachers with adequate training in nutrition education 12 (training appears to have a positive effect on the quality of nutrition education, but less so on the quantity) 13.

The FRSS elementary teacher survey of nutrition education was conducted in the spring of 1997 by Westat, a research firm in Rockville, Maryland.

The questionnaires were sent to a nationally representative sample of 1,409 kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers at U.S. public schools (see appendix A for a description of the survey methodology). Elementary teachers of grades kindergarten through fifth were selected as respondents because they are more likely to teach the same group of students for the whole school day (self-contained classes), making it possible to measure the amount and type of nutrition instruction occurring in elementary classrooms nationwide. These elementary school teachers averaged 14 years tenure and were distributed fairly evenly in grades kindergarten through fifth (Table 1).

Survey findings are presented for all schools, and frequently by the following characteristics:

  • The instructional level of the teacher (kindergarten-second, third-fifth grades),

  • The school enrollment size (less than 300, 300-499, 500 or more students),

  • The geographic region of the school (Northeast, Southeast, Central, West),

  • The level of support for nutrition education at the school (0-3 resources, 4-6 resources), and

  • The type of nutrition education training the teacher has received (none, research on own, inservice, college coursework).

    The classification variables "level of support for nutrition education at the school" and "type of nutrition education training the teacher has received" were constructed from information reported by teachers on their questionnaires. The level of support variable was constructed from responses to six questions asking about the availability of specific resources and policies in support of nutrition education at the school. Teachers reporting zero to three resources available to them were categorized as being in low-support schools; those reporting four to six resources were in high support schools. 14 The training variable was constructed from responses to four questions asking about participation in various types of training. Teachers could report participation in more than one type of training when responding to the question. Responses were recoded to the most formal type of training. From most to least formal, the categories used are college coursework, inservice/professional development training, research and reading on own, and none of these types.

    Data have been weighted to national estimates of public elementary school teachers. All comparative statements made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through chi-square tests or t-tests adjusted for multiple comparisons using Bonferroni adjustments and are significant at the 0.05 level or better. However, not all statistically significant comparisons have been presented.


1U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Home and Garden Bulletin No. 232. Fourth Edition, 1995.

2U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service. Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives. (PHS) 91-50212, 1991.

3Ibid, p. 112.

4U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Nutrition Education in U.S. Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, NCES 96-852, by Carin Celebuski and Elizabeth Farris, Judi Carpenter, project officer. 1996.

5Part of the implementation of the National School Lunch Program. 7CFR Parts 210 and 220.

6Journal of Nutrition Education. (Special Issue) "The Effectiveness of Nutrition Education and Implications for Nutrition Education Policy, Programs, and Research: A Review of Research." 27(6) (November-December 1995).

7Leslie A. Lytle, "Nutrition Education for School-aged Children." Journal of Nutrition Education, 27(6) (November-December 1995):306.

8Ibid., 306.

9Ibid, 307.

10Ibid, 307.

11Ibid, 308.

12Lytle, "Nutrition Education for School-Aged Children," 310.

13Christine M. Olson, "Inservice Preparation in Nutrition Education for Professionals and Paraprofessionals." Journal of Nutrition Education, 27(6) (November-December 1995):349.

14These categories were determined from examining the distribution of total resources available. Approximately half of teachers reported 0-3 resources and approximately half reported 4-6 resources.