During one particularly memorable episode while chef Sam Kass was a judge on the cooking TV game show Chopped, the chefs competing on the show were not home cooks with hopes of being the next Rachael Ray, but four lunch ladies, the unsung heroes of school cafeterias around the country.
During each round of the show, contestants cook a course of a meal that must include a secret ingredient that is revealed right before the round begins. For this round, the mystery ingredient was quinoa, not something commonly found on a lunch tray, but the school chefs gave it their best shots. One contestant named Cheryl made a pasta that Kass remembers as being delicious, but instead of cooking the quinoa, Cheryl had just sprinkled some on top of the dish.
When Kass asked her why she had made such a decision, Cheryl had a simple reason: It was Monday. Cheryl explained to Kass that she always made pasta on Monday because she knew that many of the students at her school had not eaten anything over the weekend. She knew that by the time Monday lunch rolled around, many students would be so hungry they would be unable to concentrate on their coursework. She knew that pasta was filling and was easy, so that's what Cheryl made on Mondays.
In his TED Talk "Want kids to learn well? Feed them well," Kass discusses the link between the amount of information a student is able to process and retain as it relates to the amount of food currently in that student's stomach. It's the same reasoning behind why schools encourage parents to make sure kids eat a full meal in the morning before coming to class: If a student is hungry, the only thing he or she will be able to concentrate on is that hunger.
"Research shows that kids who do not have consistent nourishment, particularly at breakfast, have poor cognitive function overall," Kass says.
But Kass explains that a student's ability to learn not only depends on having access to food, but having access to nutritious food. Kids who come from families that are food insecure are more likely to develop nutrition-related illnesses, such as diabetes, in their lifetime. The cheapest calories are usually the most unhealthy ones, but when there isn't a lot of money to spend on food, the cheapest items are what tend to end up in the shopping cart.
To counter this, when Kass worked at the White House, he worked on a program that would implement free breakfast and lunch programs for all students so those who come from food insecure households weren't singled out as coming from a family that needed help. In one school district, when a nutrition director elected to start a program that offered breakfast, lunch and dinner to everyone, the school saw a noticeable difference in its students, including one football coach crediting his team's win that year at the state championship to the program.
Kass believes that ensuring children have access to basic nutrition is something that will continue to affect them for years in the future.
"When we give our kids the basic nourishment, they're gonna thrive," Kass says. "If we focus on the simple goal of properly nourishing ourselves, we could see a world that is more stable and secure; we could dramatically improve our economic productivity; we could transform our health care and we could go a long way in ensuring that the Earth can provide for generations to come."
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