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


The link between food and health has been well documented by numerous studies and reports describing the impact of dietary intake on disease prevention and health promotion. Dietary recommendations and long-term health objectives, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 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.

Dietary factors are associated with 5 of the 10 leading causes of death: coronary heart disease, some types of cancer, stroke, noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, and atherosclerosis. 3

Because eating habits developed during childhood have the potential to last a lifetime, it is important for children to learn about the benefits of good nutrition. Therefore, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 views nutrition education as "a matter of highest priority." 4 Its importance is further addressed in Healthy People 2000, the list of health objectives developed by the U.S. Public Health Service, in which the public health community seeks, by the year 2000, to increase to at least 75 percent the proportion of the Nation's schools that provide nutrition education from preschool through 12th grade, preferably as a part of quality school health education. Education to establish healthy eating habits early in life can "assure that individuals have the information and skills they need to protect and enhance their own health and the health of their families." 5

The education community is also supportive of nutrition education goals. A guide for the education community, the National Education Goals in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act states that, by the year 2000, "all students will have access to physical education and health education to ensure they are healthy and fit."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actively supports these Year 2000 Goals through its School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, 6 which promotes proper nutrition and nutrition education for children based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid. This initiative requires schools to serve meals that meet Federal Dietary Guidelines and to teach children about nutrition so they will choose foods that are good for them. The USDA established Team Nutrition to help schools implement the new requirements in the School Meals Initiative. The mission of Team Nutrition is to improve the health and education of young people by creating innovative public and private partnerships that promote food choices for a healthful diet through media, schools, families, and the community. Team Nutrition is working toward its goals through two initiatives which include training and technical assistance to school food service personnel and adequate nutrition education for
children. 7 In-school efforts emphasize the importance of nutrition education to the success of nutrition policy changes in school meals.

It is not enough to change the food on the plate. We must also provide the knowledge and the skills that enable children to make choices that lead to a nutritious diet and improved health. It also is vital that local meal providers receive training on how to improve meal quality. This dual initiative to educate children and assist meal providers offers many opportunities to influence both what foods are offered by schools and what foods are eaten by children. 8

These efforts are supplemented with materials developed and distributed through partner networks and directly by USDA's Food and Consumer Service and its Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, as well as other government agencies such as the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

This report presents the findings from the survey Nutrition Education in Public Schools, K-12 that was requested by the Food and Consumer Service of the USDA. It was designed to provide data on the status of nutrition education in U.S. public schools in order to help track current and future initiatives. The survey was conducted during the spring of 1995 through the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) by Westat, Inc., a research firm in Rockville, Maryland.

The questionnaires were sent to 1,000 school principals of a nationally representative sample of U.S. public elementary, middle, and high schools (see Appendix A for survey methodology). The principals were asked to assign the completion of the survey to the person most knowledgeable about nutrition education at the school. Respondents were encouraged to consult with others if they were unsure of the answer to a question. The survey requested information about the following issues:

  • The placement of nutrition education in the curriculum,

  • The content of nutrition instruction,

  • The coordination of nutrition education, and

  • Resources for nutrition education.

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

  • School instructional level: elementary school; middle school; and high school.

  • School enrollment size: small (less than 300); moderate (300- 499); and large (500 or more).

  • Metropolitan status of school: city; urban fringe; town; and rural.

Geographic region: Northeast; Southeast; Central; and West. Data have been weighted to national estimates of public schools. All comparative statements made in this report have been tested for statistical significance though chi-square tests or t-tests adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the .05 level or better. However, not all statistically significant comparisons have been presented.

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

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

3Healthy People 2000, p. 112.

4See Appendix D, Child Nutrition Act: P.L. 103-448, Sec. 19(a).

5 Healthy People 2000, p. 251.

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

7Team Nutrition. 1995. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

8Federal Register, June 13, 1995.