Do Revolution Foods’ meals make students smarter?

by Dana Woldow on May 14, 2013

Over the years, some pretty outrageous claims have been made about healthy school meal provider Revolution Foods. Everything from “it doesn’t cost schools more to choose these meals” (yes it does) to “[their] fresh ingredients are organic” (most aren’t.) But some recent claims have raised the bar on unbelievable. Can better school food really make kids smarter?

In an April article, I mentioned a Twitter message claiming that Revolution Foods “increased school performance in 50% of the schools.” That factoid had been reported in a presentation on Revolution Foods at an event sponsored by the Center for Responsible Business of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. I questioned whether there really was data available to support such a claim, and suggested that if such data existed, Rev Foods should share it with the rest of the class.

There are other references to a supposed connection between Revolution Foods and increased student achievement. In October 2012, Kristin Richmond, writing on the company’s blog, said “As a Mom, former educator and founder and CEO of Revolution Foods, I see firsthand each day that food in schools can be delicious, healthy, affordable and loved by students. Since offering nutritious, chef-created meals through Revolution Foods, schools from New York to New Orleans report increased meal participation, improved productivity and higher test scores.”

Also in 2012, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation profiled Revolution Foods as one of their “investment partners.” The article states, “Richmond says they are now collaborating with researchers [at] top public health programs on ways to measure their full impact on school performance and community health outcomes—information that they hope to use to promote nationwide replication of their model. In the meantime, Richmond says they place great value in the testimonies they receive from teachers, principals and superintendents in states across the country.”

A few weeks after reading my April article, Kristin Richmond contacted me to offer some more detail on what exactly that Twitter message meant. She explained that Rev Foods sends out an annual survey to the Principals and staff at the schools they serve; they ask about changes the adults have observed in two areas: classroom behaviors, and student attitudes about healthy eating.

Classroom behaviors might include teacher perception that students are more focused or paying better attention after lunch, or fewer students complaining of afternoon stomach ache or asking to visit the school nurse. Student attitudes might include classroom discussion in which students expressed a willingness to try new foods, or reported asking their families to serve favorite vegetables at dinner. She told me that 50% of the most recently completed surveys showed positive results in these two areas, and that is what the Twitter message was referring to.

That’s good news, because although this is just anecdotal evidence, and the internal surveys are by no means the same as hard scientific data, the results support what many of us have been saying for so long – that investing in better meals for students, even at a much higher cost, is worth it in the long run, because properly nourished students are more likely to be able to focus and learn. They are less likely to be what school counselors call “hangry” (angry because hungry) and are less likely to miss valuable instructional time while spending the afternoon in the nurse’s office complaining of a stomach ache.

As well, students expressing interest in healthy food, and in trying and enjoying more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is an important step in taking control of their own health, and that’s good for the whole country. With the nationwide indirect cost of obesity running at about $450 billion per year, it is in America’s best interests for all children to develop healthy eating habits early on, and to maintain those habits for life.

Richmond also shared with me that although Rev Foods has been approached by both the Harvard School of Public Health and UC Berkeley about possibly researching a connection between their meals and improved student outcomes, no formal studies have yet begun. If Rev Foods does get involved with more formal analysis of their impact, it will be interesting to see if they try to tie their meals directly to higher student test scores, which Richmond alluded to in that October 2012 blog.

Buying into the current mania among some would-be school “reformers” to make higher standardized test scores the sine qua non of everything from positive teacher evaluations to qualification for low income families to retain their welfare benefits, would be a mistake on so many levels for a school meal provider. For a company like Rev Foods, which has carefully cultivated a reputation for being all about helping boost health and well-being for low income kids, it could be a public relations disaster.

Increased importance placed on test scores has led to a narrowing of the curriculum in many schools, often eliminating art, music and other enrichments in favor of more test preparation time, especially in schools serving large numbers of low income students. However, many studies demonstrate that the arts actually help children, including low income children, do better in school and in life. Why would Rev Foods want to align themselves with a movement that, even if unintentionally, deprives any child of an arts education?

In some schools, lunch periods have been shortened to as little as 15 minutes to accommodate more test prep. Is shortening the lunch period a move that any school meal company would want to support?

Those “higher” scores have sometimes, embarrassingly, turned out to be the results of cheating – by adults, not students – as well-publicized scandals have rocked Atlanta and Washington DC. In late March 2013, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing reported that standardized exam cheating had been confirmed in 37 states and DC. There’s great potential for PR catastrophe in promoting one’s company as contributing to “higher test scores” when those “higher” scores turn out to be a sham.

This spring, across the country, parent, students and educators are pushing back against standardized testing. Parents in Florida and New York are pulling their children out of testing; students in Chicago and Denver staged anti testing protests; and teachers across Seattle refused to administer high stakes tests. In Massachusetts, 130 educators signed a public statement urging officials to stop overusing high stakes tests to evaluate students, teachers and schools. Texas stands poised to reduce the number of tests its students must take annually from 15 to 5, in the wake of a test cheating scandal in El Paso.

In this climate, it seems risky to promote the idea that potential higher test scores are a proper justification for spending more money on better quality meals for students. The arguments supporting better school meals should be focused on improved student health and all of its attendant benefits: less absenteeism, better classroom behavior, happier students who are better able to focus and learn, and the formation of healthy habits to last a lifetime.

But pricey school food driving higher test scores? That idea deserves a failing grade.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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