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

Summary and Conclusions

Nutrition education is important because it has the potential to improve the health and extend the lives of generations of Americans. The results of this survey indicate that nutrition education is of great interest to educators. It is offered by most public schools, is covered in many grades, and a wide range of topics are covered. However, even though nutrition education is an active area, the intensity and quality of the nutrition messages students are receiving is not known. In addition, because nutrition education is concentrated in the health curriculum, science classes, and school health programs, the proportion of students participating at each grade level is not known.

There appears to be room for additional coordination of nutrition education across different subjects within the curriculum, across grade levels, and between the curriculum and the school meals program. The survey findings also indicate that schools are focusing on increasing students' knowledge about what is meant by good nutrition, with less emphasis on influencing students' motivation, attitudes, and eating behaviors. One objective of nutrition education is to increase knowledge. Other objectives are to change unhealthy attitudes so students have the motivation to establish healthy eating practices and teach positive skills so students have all the tools to accomplish their nutritional goals. However, less than one-third of schools that covered topics related to motivation, attitudes, or behavior provided thorough coverage of those topics.

Schools use various types of materials to teach nutrition in the classroom. However, while almost all schools receive nutrition lesson materials from sources outside the school, schools do not use all or most of the materials received. Most schools use materials developed by teachers in the school and developed for a specific grade level.

These results may suggest that nutrition education could benefit from development of appropriate materials, including age-appropriate materials and materials designed to assist teachers in preparing their own nutrition education lessons.

There is potential for the school meals program to assume a more active role in nutrition education. Most schools are taking only some steps toward achieving the Healthy People 2000 goal of including educational cafeteria experiences as well as classroom work in school nutrition education. The majority of effort consists of displaying a bulletin board with nutrition messages, with few school meals programs offering nutrient information, providing nutrition education in the classroom, or conducting other educational activities.

Although schools or districts where the nutrition education efforts are coordinated have an opportunity to present a more focused message to students about the importance of healthy eating, most schools do not have a nutrition coordinator. A person or group with responsibility for coordination can integrate the curriculum across grades so the nutrition lessons at each grade level build on the previous year's lessons, integrate the nutrition messages across subjects within a grade, and integrate classroom nutrition lessons with related nonclassroom activities. A nutrition education coordinator can also bring a background and skills in nutrition to schools. In the schools that do have a single nutrition education coordinator, 72 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher in nutrition or a nutrition-related area.

The overall findings indicate that although nutrition education is already of interest to public schools, there is room for additional effort. In particular, opportunities exist for development of appropriate materials and greater coordination across different subjects within the curriculum, across grade levels, and between the curriculum and other school resources like the school meals program so the messages received by students are consistent, pervasive, and aimed at motivating children to choose a healthy diet.