As principal of the Patrick J. Kennedy School in East Boston, I know firsthand the importance of making sure students are well fed and well nourished. A little over half of our 302 elementary school students come from economically disadvantaged families and so the food they eat in our cafeteria is critical to their health. For these young people in particular, school food is fuel—and eating nutritious, well-balanced meals is paramount to their ability to succeed academically.
Through our partnership with the Shah Foundation, we’ve made many positive changes to our school’s food program over the past two years. Gone are the salty French fries, deep-fried chicken nuggets, and greasy pizza. Today’s menu prioritizes real food: whole grains, proteins, and fruits and vegetables.
In September, we revamped our breakfast menu. No more hyper-processed muffins and sugar-laden granola bars. Now we serve fresh milled bagels—with cream cheese or sun butter, or as part of an egg sandwich. (For those who can’t get to school in time for early breakfast, grab-and-go bagels are offered after first period, to be eaten during snack time.)
Our students love the new menu—and our teachers love the changes they’ve seen in the kids’ performance. Students have a greater ability to focus on their work. They have more energy. They don’t misbehave. Their attention spans are longer. And their moods are better to boot. What’s more, the kids know they’re making healthy food choices, which is empowering.
This is a dramatic shift from year’s past. When I first started as principal in 2016, our school’s food was delivered to us frozen and wrapped in several layers of cellophane. It was, by and large, terrible: high in sugar, full of fat and sodium, and not tasty at all.
Most students were taking the food, but leaving much of their meals untouched. As a result, the kids were hangry—meaning irritable and angry due to their hunger. Students couldn’t concentrate on their lessons and many of them were acting out in class. There was a period of time when I chose not to schedule any meetings in the afternoon because I knew I would inevitably be dealing with disciplinary issues.
This is not unique to our school. A growing body of research shows that children who are hungry or malnourished have a harder time learning. Malnutrition can also impact sleeping patterns, making a child too tired to spend a full day learning at school.
But since we’ve enhanced our food program, the change has been transformative. Students are getting what they need nutritionally—and they love the food we are serving. Kids are happier. And the teachers are happier, too.