Can Organic Veggies Transform Education?

Jamie Oliver‘s war on obesity in America hasn’t been very popular, but there’s evidence that his methods did work in the U.K. “The proportion of 11-year-olds in Greenwich, south London, who did well in English and science rose after Oliver swept ‘turkey twizzlers’ and chicken dinosaurs off canteen menus in favour of creamy coconut fish and Mexican bean wraps…” reports The Guardian. “Authorized absences” also fell by 15%. Unfortunately, the poorest children didn’t seem to benefit from the program. (HT: Chris Blattman)[%comments]


Tzimiskes

Man, put creamy coconut fish on the menu and I might be tempted to drop by my local high school and see if they'll sell lunch to walk ins. What's wrong with these kids that they don't like the changes? I'm envious.

Will

Science reporting in the U.K. media is abysmal. Check out www.badscience.net for further examples.

David L

This is dubious. I find it very tough to believe that an incremental improvement in one meal per day over the course of a year would have a measurable impact on performance. What, exactly, is the physiological connection between a decrease in fat/hydrogenated oil/sodium intake (the main indictments against processed food) and mental performance? It's not like they were malnourished on the old diet--I would expect the new diet to manifest itself with lower obesity, heart disease, cancer, and LOOOOOONG term effects like that. My hypotheses:

1) The improved menu resulted in more upper-middle class families enrolling in the participating schools. Those families would tend to have a higher value for healthy diets, and their demographics would also have a high positive correlation with children's intelligence. This would explain why the poorest kids didn't benefit.

2) Some administrator who was (rightfully) a proponent of this program decided to (wrongfully) generate some compelling results by affecting the grading system.

Of course I have no evidence for either of these, but they both seem more plausible than the alternative.

NOTE: The Guardian's site appears to be down so I couldn't read the article itself... so if I appear to ignore or contradict something therein, that's why.

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GregM

David L, why not the obvious? I imagine that the healthy meals contained fewer calories (especially in the high energy density form of fat,) so the kids didn't spend the afternoon half-asleep while their bodies worked on digesting a high calorie lunch, and instead spent it more alert and attentive.

David C

David L/GregM - Or that the calories came from high fructose foods which will also diminish concentration and attentiveness. The lunches also create a food demand in younger children for similar meals outside school.

HF

There's earlier coverage of this paper here http://timharford.com/2009/11/how-a-celebrity-chef-turned-into-a-social-scientist/ fom a writer with a better grasp of experimental methodology and controlled trials than many journalists (or commentors). It points out that the results are provisional, but also that there was a creditable pilot program here and that policy experiments area better basis for forming opinions of worth than knee-jerk emotional responses. That last point is one that a lot of people, it would seem,would benefit from absorbing.

Luca Masters

Reduced absences will also improve scores. (They say unexcused absences. I'd expect illness (=excused absences, I would assume) would also drop.)

Luca Masters

Also, I'm wondering where 'organic' comes into it. Especially considering the cost. The increased consumption that should come with the relative affordability of non-organic produce almost certainly outweighs the health costs of pesticides, especially if you're dealing with school lunches, where you can ensure the produce gets washed, and when obesity is by far a bigger health concern than non-tobacco-or-sun-caused cancer. (Even if not, cancer isn't hurting /education/.)

David Hodgkinson

What has this got to do with organic? It's about healthy food or to use the technical term "not total crap".

Tracey

I'm not sure what the point of the last line in the blurb was for? Does Oliver control where rich and poor kids go to school? Does he control the budget on food for both schools? Why does his name get tarnished with that comment - is it because he is actually doing something about changing things and benefiting by putting it into a tv show?

Firstly - schools shouldn't have non nutritional foods on the menu to start with, surely that is a breakdown in school administration to start with (my kids go to an international school and a Potato in jacket is the closest thing to a chip/fries they can get) - second - good food helps children learn - by staying awake after lunch and giving vitamins and nutrients. There is no real shock in that and does it really need a study? Why do you think educated families spend so much time and money on nutritional food for their kids for breakfast and dinner - it's a proven fact that it works (plus the kids are taller, less fat and have more energy).

The kids at our school are currently trying to teach the local poor people (we live in Indonesia so that is a lot of people) how to feed their children nutritional food and make it available for them where they buy their food (every meal comes from a vendor of some sort). Don't tell me they are trying to change the diet of thousands of kids before some big study was done to prove that it works!!!!

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Richard, UK

Not sure where the phrase 'organic veggie' has come from, presumably through some perception that you have to be a nut job to want to eat normal food. Jamie Oliver is not a vegetarian. He had a huge campaign to improve the quality of school meals here in the UK, since he thought it wasn't a great idea to feed our school kids chips and the like every day. So he campaigned for more money per meal (which he got as every realised it probably was a good idea) and now several schools have improved. Probably many haven't.

The data surrounding how much it has improved things is probably dubious, I haven't studied it and have no real interest in it. The biggest benefits will be health and hopefully a considerable shift in general nutrition and eating habits for the kids for the rest of their lives. The very idea that a school in Greenwich is in anyway representative of a UK school is quite amusing too!

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Mike B

Reduced use of processed foods, especially ones high in sugar and carbs, helps to calm kids down, focus and reduces behavior issues. I don't have the study at hand, but that is the mechanism for improvement, not some sort of miraculous detoxification. Kids who are amped up on sugar and carbs can't settle in and focus we well as kids on a diet that is lower in "cheap calories."

DaveJ

One of the reasons that some of the poorest kids haven't benefited is that in order to fund the improvements in food quality, many schools now charge parents for them. While it's true that many children do qualify for free school meals, there's probably a gap between these andthose that can afford to pay for them.

LiamB

In the UK his drive was not based on fully organic or vegetarian food, just a healthy balanced diet. Was this different in US?