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Do better school lunches help kids learn?


In 2005, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver convinced London's Greenwich borough to let him remake their school-lunch system. Armed with some publicity, some private funding and some ideas about how school lunches should look, he began remaking the kitchens and training the cafeteria workers. Neat stunt, right? Tim Harford picks up the story:

What caught the attention of Michele Belot and Jonathan James, though, was the way Oliver’s project had been implemented. Belot and James – economists at Nuffield College, Oxford, and at the University of Essex respectively – noted that the campaign had created a near-perfect experiment. The chef had convinced Greenwich’s council and schools to change menus to fit his scheme; he mobilised resources, provided equipment and trained dinner ladies. Other London boroughs with similar demographics received none of these advantages – and indeed, because the programme wasn’t broadcast until after the project was well under way, probably knew little about it. The result was a credible pilot project. It wasn’t quite up to the gold standard of a randomised trial, but it wasn’t far off.

Thanks to the UK’s exhaustive school testing regime, Belot and James were able to track pupils’ performance in some detail. They concentrated on primary schools, figuring that secondary school pupils could (and probably would) avoid eating school lunches that were too worthy. (This is surely correct. My own habitual sixth-form lunch was four bars of chocolate – a pound a day well spent.)

Their answer – a provisional one, since they are still refining the research – is that feeding primary school kids less fat, sugar and salt, and more fruit and vegetables, has a surprisingly large effect. Authorised absences, the best available proxy for illness, fell by 15 per cent in Greenwich, relative to schools in similar London boroughs. And relative to other boroughs, the proportion of children reaching Level Four in English rose by four and a half percentage points (more than six per cent), while the proportion of children achieving Level Five in Science rose by six points, or almost 20 per cent.

"What astonishes me," writes Harford, "is that it took a television company and a celebrity chef to carry out a proper policy experiment." And what astonishes me is that it's not being replicated. Those are huge results. It's just one project, but the way you find out if the numbers hold is by re-creating the experiment. If something as cheap as good food can deliver something as important as better school performance, it's time to fund some serious pilot projects.

Photo credit: By Rick Nederstigt/Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  November 11, 2009; 12:34 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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"If something as cheap as good food can deliver something as important as better school performance, it's time to fund some serious pilot projects."

Hear, hear.

It makes such an enormous difference when you've eaten well. I see it with my own children, who usually eat breakfast at home and take packed lunches that I make. When I can get them up in time to eat a good breakfast, particularly one with protein (i.e. eggs) and fruit and/or juice, they are calmer on the way to school and their teachers report better attention, and their grades are better. On the rare day they grab something quick (and, I'm certain, sweet and junky) at school instead of eating properly, their performance suffers in the opposite direction.

Jamie Oliver has taken his talent, celebrity, and personal wealth and done an awful lot of good things with them--the program Ezra mentions here, as well as a restaurant staffed by juvenile offenders he personally trained--and he's accomplished it all despite being called a pretty boy, despite being labeled (at first) a "flash in the pan" (so to speak), and despite being born into something other than Britain's "upper crust".

He's a national treasure, and I'm really, really proud of him.

Posted by: litbrit | November 11, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

The Calhoun School, a private school in NYC, hired a celebrity chef of sorts a few years ago, someone who by all accounts really engaged kids in the food prep process. I wonder if Calhoun kept any record of impact?

Posted by: sprung4 | November 11, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Well, I think the correct answer to your headline question is, "Duh." But now that there's some results data, perhaps others might come to the same realization?

Posted by: ajw_93 | November 11, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse


But why no mention of cost? I'd like to think they saved money, too, but we don't get that from the, ehem, Financial Times.

Posted by: Rick00 | November 11, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Probably doesn't hurt that the kids know they're getting a treat. A little love goes a long way.

Posted by: Sophomore | November 11, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Berkeley, CA used its own celbrity chef, Alice Waters, and did even more--breakfast and snacks as well as lunch. The kids seem to really like the food. Apples are available at any time. It took some doing to get the lunch staff to actually prepare food rather than use the frozen stuff pre-made from USDA commodities, but it has worked, and it's been written up several times.

Posted by: Mimikatz | November 11, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Natural Ovens tried a project like this in Appleton, WI back in the late 90s. I'm not sure if there was a corresponding academic study, but the anecdotal evidence they gathered is in agreement with Oliver's study.

Posted by: punditpending | November 11, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

The problem with this 'experiment' is that simply having a celebrity and TV cameras around the school will have a considerable effect on the behavior of the school children (known as the Hawthorn Effect). Kids will be more willing to come to school if they are going to appear on TV. You also need to assess compliance with the program. As far as I can remember many of the parents prevented their children eating the healthy lunch, by providing snacks and sweets.

Posted by: AndyPandy | November 12, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

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