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Project tests nutrition, academic performance

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Monday October 09, 2000

Students at Oxford Elementary will soon be participating in a research project to see whether nutritious meals will improve their performance. 

Dr. Michael Murphy, a child nutrition researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, will be tracking 100 students at Oxford. The Berkeley Unified School District and the Child Nutrition Advisory Committee are sponsoring the project. 

Murphy said he will set up a whole-grain breakfast bar and an organic salad bar and compare the students’ performances – academically and behaviorally – to their achievements from last year. Parental permission is required for a student to participate. 

“First, we’re going to see if the kids will eat a whole-grain breakfast if it’s provided,” he said. “If they do, we’ll see how it affects their performance.” 

Murphy conducted a similar study last year in Philadelphia involving 100 kids. The results, he said, showed that students who ate better breakfasts performed better in class. 

“It’s pretty well established that five to 30 percent of students (in the U.S.) experience hunger,” he said.  

“I’ve been involved in five years of research that questioned whether or  

not hunger does anything bad,  

performance wise, or are they just uncomfortable. And the answer is yes, it does hinder their performance.” 

Last year, the district implemented a “no student in Berkeley goes hungry” food service policy. The policy draws the “important connection between a healthy diet and a student’s ability effectively and achieve high standards in school.” 

Superintendent Jack McLaughlin said Murphy’s research will provide even better data about the link between nutrition and learning. 

The district has worked with the Child Nutrition Advisory Council – a collection of parents, teachers and students – for almost four years with the goal of bringing more nutritious breakfasts and lunches to Berkeley schools. 

Chairman Eric Weaver said the council has launched several programs, including a salad bar at Malcolm X and a universal breakfast at Rosa Parks. 

Teachers at Rosa Parks have reported a decline in tardiness, absenteeism and an improvement in behavior since the breakfast began last year. 

Suzanne Bernhard, the coordinator for the salad bar at Malcolm X, said her program began last May with student taste tests. She said the salad bar increased paid-participation by 46 percent. 

“Raising paid-participation is the key,” Weaver said. “It shows that you can increase the amount of customers that you have.” 

Chez Panisse owner and chef Alice Waters, who started an “edible school yard” program in the district, believes it’s only natural that the kids perform better if they eat better. 

“I hope this could be a natural curriculum,” she said. “When you grow good food and cook good food, there’s a likelihood that you’ll eat good food.”