When a natural foods company made big changes to the school lunchroom at Appleton Central High School in Wisconsin, something radical also seemed to happen among a student body at risk for dropping out.
The soda-filled vending machines at the alternative education high school were replaced with new ones offering only juice, water and energy drinks. Natural Ovens and Bakery, a local company in Appleton, Wisc., took over the cafeteria and offered fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain breads and entrees free of additives and chemicals, instead of pizza and fries.
Long standard-issue cafeteria tables made way for round tables, creating a more relaxed feel in the lunch room. But the biggest change of all was that discipline statistics plummeted.
"I can say without hesitation that it's changed my job as a principal," said LuAnn Coenen. "Since we've started this program, I have had zero weapons on campus, zero expulsions from the school, zero premature deaths or suicides, zero drugs or alcohol on campus. Those are major statistics."
And in classrooms, teachers suddenly felt like they were getting through.
"Since the introduction of the food program, I have noticed an enormous difference in the behavior of my students in the classroom," said teacher Mary Bruyette. "They're on task, they are attentive. They can concentrate for longer periods of time."
What Lunch Hour?
While teachers couldn't say that junk food and soda had caused the problems that led the students to be sent to the alternative school in the first place, they did say that the improved school lunches — first introduced five years ago — have made a vast difference in reducing behavior problems.
These aren't statistics that surprise Karen Stout, an associate professor of education at Lehigh University, who has studied more than 2,000 lunchrooms across the United States.
"Atmosphere in the lunchroom carries into the afternoon atmosphere in classrooms," she said. "So that when it's chaotic and fast and hurried, kids come back to class as wound [up], not relaxed and ready to do meaningful academic work."
Medical organizations have banned together and are asking schools to make changes. Their suggestions: longer lunch periods, shorter lines, improved facilities and more adults eating with the students.
Lunch hour is often a misnomer. The average school schedule allows less than 20 minutes for lunch, and there could be as many as 300 kids waiting in line to eat high-fat favorites, like pizza, tacos, and fries.
"Healthier food is better for you," said one student Cayla Schueler who attends Appleton West, another school in the district. "But sometimes you have to just go for the grease."
At a time when childhood obesity is skyrocketing, schools are under attack for contributing to the problem. According to the Department of Agriculture, 76 percent of schools offer soft drinks while 63 percent serve salty snacks and high-fat treats.
Students Concentrate Better
Students say that food does have an impact on their behavior.
"I'd say being able to concentrate better," one Appleton High student, Taylor, said. "Not as tired. More energy."
Another student, Meagan, said that if students went back to drinking soda, and eating junk food, the school's atmosphere would change, too.
"It would probably be crazy," she said. "People would be bouncing off the walls."
But several schools have recognized that more than a child's health is on the line, and that a better lunch may spell better grades.
Melrose Elementary School in Tampa, Fla., transformed their cafeteria into the "Melrose Diner." The school painted murals on the walls, set the tables with tablecloths and flowers and added a sound-activated stop light.
The stop light changes when the noise in the cafeteria goes above acceptable levels. These days the light is rarely red and the calm in the lunchroom has spilled over into the classroom.
"Boys and girls, the light's on yellow, watch your voice level," the stop light warned.
Susan Graham, Melrose's principal, said discipline referrals in the last three years have decreased 50 percent. "Now with this kind of ambience and atmosphere our parent involvement is up 30 percent," she said.
"We get a lot more done, I think it's a lot more efficient work environment for all of us," Graham said. "We have happier students and happier teachers and much happier principals."