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Nutrition Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools
NCES: 96852
July 1996


  • Practically all public schools (99 percent) offer nutrition education somewhere within the curriculum, and many integrate it within the total curriculum (70 percent). Nutrition education is concentrated within the health curriculum (84 percent), science classes (72 percent), and school health program (68 percent) (Table 1). Although nutrition education is an active area, the intensity and quality of the nutrition messages students are receiving is not known.

  • For each grade from kindergarten through eighth, 50 percent or more of all schools have district or state requirements for students to receive nutrition education. However, only 40 percent have these requirements for ninth and tenth grades; and about 20 percent for eleventh and twelfth grades (Figure 1).

  • Topics in nutrition covered by more than 90 percent of all schools are: the relationship between diet and health, finding and choosing healthy foods, nutrients and their food sources, the Food Guide Pyramid, and the Dietary Guidelines and goals (Table 4). However, with the exception of the Food Guide Pyramid, less than half of schools cover these topics thoroughly.

  • Overall, schools focus on increasing students' knowledge about what is meant by good nutrition, with less emphasis on influencing students' motivation, attitudes, and eating behaviors. Four of the five topics covered by more than 90 percent of all schools are related to knowledge. With the exception of finding and choosing healthy foods, less than one-third of schools provide thorough coverage of topics related to motivation, attitudes, and eating behaviors (Table 4).

  • Research has shown that schools or districts where the nutrition education efforts are coordinated by a person or group have an opportunity to present a more focused message to students about the importance of healthy eating. However, the majority of schools (61 percent) have no nutrition education coordination, meaning each teacher is responsible for his or her own lessons (Table 6).

  • Most schools use materials developed by teachers in their schools (90 percent), health or science textbooks (89 percent), and materials developed for a specific grade level (83 percent) (Table 10).

  • Ninety-seven percent of schools report receiving nutrition lesson materials from at least one source outside the school, most often from professional or trade associations (87 percent), and the food industry (86 percent). However, for any given outside source, only 37 percent or less of schools used all or most of the materials received. Of the materials from sources outside the school, schools reported the highest classroom usage for those received from the food industry or commodities groups, professional or trade associations, the USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center, and state education agencies (Table 8).

  • Over 90 percent of all schools offer nutrition education through the school meals program. Most information is offered through bulletin boards with nutrition displays (65 percent) or during school lunch week (51 percent). Less than half of school meals programs offer nutrient information, serve meals to correspond with classroom activities, give tours or provide nutrition input to newsletters. Less than one quarter of school meals programs provide nutrition education in the classroom or conduct tasting parties (Table 11).

  • Most respondents (84 percent) are of the opinion that the meals programs in their schools follow generally healthy eating practices (Figure 5). Schools reporting that their meals programs follow healthy eating practices are substantially more likely to be involved in nutrition education activities than those that do not report following them (Table 14).