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Start your healthy eating habits at school

Healthy and bright children with better learning abilities is the reward when good eating habits are introduced in a structured way at school. A Danish study shows that about half of the country's schools have introduced measures to promote healthy eating habits, but that it requires extreme dedication, support and economic thrift if the scheme is to be successful.

2015.03.11 | Janne Hansen

Healthy food habits at school support learning and concentration in the children. Photo: Colourbox

If your stomach is rumbling with hunger it may be difficult to concentrate on learning at school, and if you fill yourself with sweets, chips and fast food, it can, among other things, lead to malnutrition and obesity. Neither of these situations promotes health in body and mind. Several of Denmark’s schools are doing something about this problem because they believe it is important to stimulate and help children to eat healthily.

How prevalent is the use of various schemes and initiatives in the country's schools and municipalities, and whether we can learn from each other's experiences was the focus of a nationwide study conducted by researchers from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University.

The study was initiated at the request of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) who wished partly to gain an overview of the number of Danish local authorities and schools that focus on healthy food and food enjoyment, and partly to have an overview of the initiatives that can be used to develop and instil a healthy food culture in Danish schoolchildren.

The study, which is described in a report published by DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University, found that about half of the country's schools have introduced different systems that make healthy food, and enjoyment thereof, part of everyday life at school. Similarly, just under a third of the country's local authorities have put healthy food and food enjoyment on their political agenda.

Healthy eating habits improve learning

- Children spend much time in school and day care, and up to half of the calories they eat are consumed during this time. It is therefore important that children are offered conditions that support healthy eating habits, says research assistant Trine Mørk from the MAPP Centre, Aarhus University.

Healthy foods in appropriate amounts promote childrens’ health, well-being and learning. It is therefore also in the school's own interest that children eat the right foods. A healthy food culture at an early stage is also important in order to build skills in making healthy choices later in life. Putting healthy food and food enjoyment on the schools’ agenda allows children to learn about nutrition and strengthen their social and personal skills when they, for instance, lend a helping hand in the canteen and thus learn how to cook and collaborate with others.

With the aim of measuring the commitment of Danish schools and local authorities to making healthy food and food enjoyment part of everyday life at school, as well as how and why they do so, researchers from Aarhus University sent questionnaires to all of the country’s 1675 schools and 98 local authorities. About half of the schools (810) and authorities (50) responded partially or fully to the questionnaire.

Based on the answers to these questionnaires, the researchers completed in-depth interviews and observations at ten selected schools and two authorities to examine the schools’ and the local authorities’ policies in the area, as well as their experience and background for implementing the chosen initiatives.

Half of all schools actively support healthy eating habits

The results show that most schools have taken steps or initiatives that promote healthy food habits at school. Just over half (53.3 percent) of the schools are working explicitly towards incorporating policies and concrete actions related to the promotion of healthy food and meals, while the same is true for just under a third (32 percent) of the country's local authorities.

The most prominent reason among schools for initiating measures is that they wish to optimize student learning.

- Schools believe that healthy and hearty food has a positive impact on both student well-being and ability to concentrate, which can give teachers a better platform for effective teaching, explains Trine Mørk.

The 10.6 percent of schools where no actions have been initiated attributed that lack mainly to either having other priorities or a lack of resources.

The authorities that are not active in setting an agenda for healthy eating in the schools indicate that this is primarily because such initiatives have been devolved to the schools. A common characteristic of the active authorities is that there is a high degree of dialogue and participation between the relevant stakeholders, including the children.

School meal schemes are popular

The most common measures used in schools are meal schemes. This usually takes the form of a lunch offer to replace a packed lunch, but also breakfast, fruit schemes, or a combination of these. In most of the instances where meal schemes are used, the school will set nutritional standards for the meals that are based on DVFA recommendations for healthy school meals. A positive secondary effect of eating healthy food in a social environment is that children and teachers experience that social relations improve.

- In general, it appears that the schools that are actively working on this have an ambition to provide the right conditions for healthy eating and food enjoyment and that they mainly do it to promote better eating habits and wellbeing in the pupils, says Trine Mørk.

In the vast majority of cases the motivation and drive in establishing and carrying out the initiatives lies with certain key people at the schools and are not due to external demands by the state or local authorities. The experience of the schools is, however, that good intentions are far from enough. There must be local firebrands and a good economy to run the scheme. Furthermore, support from management, teachers, parents and pupils alike is essential.

Room for improvement

- Many good experiences have been recorded in schools and if these could be shared with others that would be a great plus. Our study shows that most schools lack a structured evaluation of the initiatives, which can be a hindrance if you wish to learn from your experience at your own school and share it with other schools, says Trine Mørk. She also has a few other bits of advice to both schools and local authorities:

- It may be advantageous to give the focal actors – the children – more influence on the conception and creation of healthy meals. Children have lots of ideas and opinions. Political support and stronger anchoring at the school are also good starting points for further development.

The studies are carried out on behalf of the DVFA and published in the form of a report by DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University as part of the policy support agreement between Aarhus University and the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.

The report "Mad og måltider i skolen – inspiration og erfaringer" DCA report no. 53, February 2015 (in Danish) can be downloaded here.

For further information please contact: Research Assistant Trine Mørk, Department of Business Administration, e-mail: tmork@badm.au.dk, telephone: +45 8716 6039