In recent years, we have been told that we need to decolonize our bookshelf. In fact, it is our plate that needs decolonizing. In the early 20th century, pioneering dentist and researcher Dr. Weston Price studied the effects of traditional and modern diets on peoples around the world. Dr. Price found that traditional, nutrient-dense food produced not only the most healthy teeth but also the greatest physical health, intelligence, and emotional well-being. He observed that the consumption of “foods of modern civilization,” usually brought by the white man, led to dental decay and other health problems among the same groups.1 Dr. Price’s book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, is available free online.
Dr. Price’s “foods of modern civilization” are similar to the modern convenience foods that are abundant on our plates today: white flour, sugar, seed oils, and vegetable fats. At any age, we can experience nutritional deficiencies, but it is children who suffer the most when nutrients are lacking in their diet. Children’s physical development, school success, and very future depend on the consumption of adequate nutrients. We need to replace modern convenience foods with traditional, nutrient-dense menu items. School lunches are a great place to start. Evidence has demonstrated that serving truly nutrient-dense school lunches can result in a significant positive impact on children’s school performance.
Dr. Price’s research findings
Dr. Price’s travels spanned the globe. The peoples he studied consumed various kinds of food, depending on their local environment. These foods included dairy products from pastured animals, organ meats, and seafood, including fish eggs. Items such as sea worms, seal oil, and moose liver might seem unpalatable to us, but read on. There are many nutrient-dense foods that appeal to our modern tastes, even to those of children.
In his research laboratory, Dr. Price studied the vitamin and mineral content of various food samples he collected. He found that the traditional foods were at least ten times higher in fat-soluble activators (A, D, and K2) than the displacing foods of the white man.2
Nutrition in school lunches
There is a strong contrast between the foods consumed by the isolated peoples that Dr. Price studied and the foods that most children are eating today.
In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets guidelines for lunches in schools that receive federal funding. In recent decades, some efforts have been made to improve the quality of nutrition in school lunches. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.” This legislation permitted the USDA to make changes to the school lunch program. The objective of these changes was to ensure that nutritional guidelines for schools supported the goal of reducing childhood obesity, which has increased significantly in recent decades. Some of the changes, such as adding more vegetables to the menu, reducing sugar, and substituting whole grains for refined ones, have been a step in the right direction.
Other changes represent a move in the wrong direction entirely. For example, the 2010 changes included the removal of whole milk from school menus. Since that time, schools have been required to offer plain low-fat or nonfat flavored milk for children. This is problematic for several reasons. Children are fast oxidizers,3 so they need a lot of fat in their diet, and whole milk plays an important role. In addition, removing the fat removes valuable nutrients. As Dr. Price noted nearly 100 years ago, the fat-soluble activators in milk are needed for the body to utilize minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus.
Not all students were happy with the 2010 changes. Students at Wallace High School in Kansas made a video to protest the changes. The title of the video is, “We Are Hungry.” If students are feeling hungry, it is possibly because the meals they are being served are too small or are not satiating.
In early 2022, the USDA issued new transitional guidelines, which allow for the serving of flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk. According to Dairy MAX, a regional dairy council partnership in several southern and western states, “Kids will choose flavored milk 70% of the time, with low-fat chocolate milk as the most popular choice.” Fat contributes to the flavor of milk; it is not surprising that the children may not like the taste of plain nonfat or low-fat milk. The flavored milks contain sugars, which can contribute up to 80 grams of additional sugar per child per week. Adding sugar does not support the goal of reducing obesity.
Although low-fat and nonfat milks are fortified with Vitamins A and D, there is evidence that consuming whole milk may have nutritional benefits for children. A recent study showed that, when children consume whole milk instead of low-fat milk, absorption of Vitamin D is 2.5 to 3 times higher. The same study found that children consuming whole milk were 40% less likely to become overweight.
To compound the low-fat problem, New York City schools recently implemented a vegan Friday. This move, ostensibly to improve children’s health and to protect the environment, is another step in the wrong direction. A recent photo of a school lunch showed a meal consisting of chick peas served with rice or pasta, along with roasted cauliflower and broccoli and an apple. The meal is accompanied by nonfat milk. There is very little fat in the meal and almost no animal fat. Students themselves have not been too impressed with the vegan lunches and state that they prefer meat. Dr. Price noted that most animals instinctively know which foods are nutritious for them and seek out those foods. He wrote, “Modern man has largely lost this guide, though while young he maintains a large measure of it.”4 In saying that they prefer meat, perhaps the New York City students are simply responding to an instinct for nutrients that their body needs. (It is true that many children also crave sugar, but sugar is highly addictive.)
Nutrients for brain function
Licensed nutritionist and researcher Dr. Sylvia Onusic has written a comprehensive article linking nutrition, brain function, and behavior. She identifies several nutrients that are critical for children’s brain function.
- Vitamin D. Affects parts of the brain involved in learning, memory and motor control. Vitamin D is also involved in the production of serotonin, the “molecule of will power.”
- Vitamin A. In animal studies, Vitamin A deficiency has been shown to result in “problems with spatial learning and memory.”
- Choline. A precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is very important in memory and mood.
- ARA (arachidonic acid) and DHA (docosohexaenoic acid). Adequate brain concentrations of these fatty acids are believed to be important for multiple aspects of brain metabolism, function and structure.5
Cholesterol, much maligned in recent decades, is also important. In an August 2013 press release promoting Dr. Onusic’s article, Weston A. Price Foundation president Sally Fallon Morell commented, “Children need cholesterol-rich food for optimal mental and emotional development.”
Animal foods are the richest sources of the above nutrients.
School lunches and academic performance
Introducing high-quality foods at just one meal a day could result in a significant impact on children’s school performance.6
In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Dr. Price describes an experiment that he conducted at a clinic in Cleveland. Children were fed one “reinforced meal” six days per week. Previously, the children had been eating a diet of “white bread, vegetable fat, pancakes made of white flour and eaten with syrup, and doughnuts fried in vegetable fat.”7 The reinforced meals consisted of a “very rich vegetable and meat stew, cooked fruit with very little sweetening, and rolls made from freshly ground wheat…spread with the high-vitamin butter.”8 Children were also given two glasses of fresh whole milk. Although Dr. Price’s objective was to improve the dental health of children, he remarked that “two different teachers came to me to inquire what had been done to make a particular child change from one of the poorest in the class in capacity to learn to one of the best.”9
Another interesting school nutrition project took place in the 1960s at Helix High School in La Mesa, California. Seeking to improve the dental health of students and to reduce sports-related injuries, the school implemented a study that spanned 10 years. A 23-minute video, available from the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, describes in detail the school menu items, preparation of the food, and the results achieved.10
The video is narrated by Gina Larson, the school’s cafeteria manager. In her closing remarks summarizing the impact of the study, Mrs. Larson stated that Helix High School students were noted for high academic and scholarship standards as well as athletic ability. In addition, the school experienced a record reduction in athletic injuries. This resulted in savings on accident insurance premiums for the school district. The school also reported a significant decrease in plate waste.
Let us take a look at the Helix High School nutritional program.
School lunch requirements of the 1960s included a three-ounce serving of meat, fish, poultry, or cheese, 1¼ cup fruit or vegetables (or combination), a serving of whole-grain or enriched bread, 1 tablespoon of butter or enriched margarine, and ⅓ quart of milk.
Mrs. Larson, consulting with a physician, developed a menu that would meet these guidelines and provide plenty of nutrients without excess calories.
Menu items included the following:
- Baked sea bass. Dipped in buttermilk and yogurt, then breading, the fish was topped with melted butter and baked in the oven. The school made its own dill sauce with house-made mayonnaise, buttermilk, yogurt, chopped olives, and dill pickles or fresh dill.
- Hamburgers served on sprouted grain buns
- Whole wheat pizzas
- High-protein spaghetti topped with cheddar cheese
- A savory casserole made from beef hearts: steamed, diced, and mixed with well-seasoned bread dressing and baked in the oven. The dish was served with a rich brown gravy.
- Salad plates11 with sliced or chopped turkey or chicken and sliced cheese, or tuna salad. Fresh fruits and vegetables were delivered daily. The school also prepared their own bean and lentil sprouts, which were added to salads. Students were offered a choice of several salad dressings made from the school’s house-made mayonnaise, as well as a French dressing. The fresh dressings made the salads very palatable to students.
- Breads baked fresh daily. Yeast-raised cornbread was formulated for tooth and bone health, as were all of the quick breads. Athletes were asked to make these breads part of their training program. Mrs. Larson commented, “We make [the cornbread] just before serving time so that the lovely aroma comes floating out to the youngsters when they come in for lunch.”
- Freshly-squeezed vegetable juices, including carrot and celery, were served to students who had “milk excuses” from their coach or doctor.
No sugar at all was used in the meals. Natural sweeteners such as dates, honey, and molasses, were used in moderation.
Mrs. Larson noted that the “enzymes, vitamins, and minerals in these fresh foods are well accepted by the students when they are prepared carefully.” Many of the items listed above were favorites with the students, and even the beef heart casserole was described as “quite acceptable to the students.”
Good nutrition did not end at the cafeteria doors. All of the Helix High School students were required to participate in the school’s nutritional education program so that they could prepare their own lunch to bring along, as well as a good breakfast and dinner, if needed.
The Helix High School study gained some publicity and was featured in the August 1966 issue of The Green Revolution newsletter. In the 1970s, Sarah Sloan, director of nutrition, initiated a similar project at 70 elementary schools in Fulton County, Georgia. These schools achieved similar results to those of Helix High School. Sadly, when Mrs. Sloan and Mrs. Larson died, “The school systems promptly reverted to machine-vended snacks and refined foods from government surplus.”12
Black lunches matter
In recent years, there has been much discussion about how to reduce racial disparities in educational attainment. Some of the initiatives underway involve social justice curricula. Others involve eliminating standardized testing or lowering the bar for some students. Improving children’s nutrition may be a better way to reduce disparities and help all children to achieve their full potential.
Several aspects of school lunches are problematic for black children.
- Excessive seed oils. Industrial seed oils, widely used in all kinds of food preparation, are problematic for everyone, but these oils may have a particularly negative impact on black children. Linoleic acid represents about 80% of the fatty acid composition of seed oils. In a February 2021 article, researcher Tyrone Williams noted that studies suggest that about 80% of black people have a genetic variant which makes their bodies more efficient at converting linoleic acid (LA) to arachidonic acid (AA). While some arachidonic acid is necessary for proper brain function, as noted by Dr. Onusic, excess arachidonic acid causes oxidative stress and chronic inflammation.13 This oxidative stress may contribute to impaired executive functioning and impulse control, both of which are essential for good school performance. In an earlier article, Williams presented evidence suggesting that “inflammation may impair academic performance.”14
- Lack of Vitamin D. We have noted the importance of Vitamin D for brain function. Studies have shown that black children have lower levels of Vitamin D than white children. A vegan lunch filled with seed oils is not going to help with Vitamin D deficiency.
- Increase obesity. A recent study showed that obese children had lower executive functioning and memory capabilities than did children with normal BMI. Black children have higher rates of obesity (24.2%) than white children (16%). Serving low-fat milk may be worsening this problem. Furthermore, there is a connection between obesity and Vitamin D deficiency. Williams referred to a study “showing that 78.4% of female adolescent African Americans who were obese were also vitamin D deficient.”
- Contribute to behavior problems. It is hard for children to learn when they are not in school. In his February 2021 article, Williams wrote, “In America, 5% of white boys and 2% of white girls receive one or more out–of-school suspensions annually, as compared with 18% of black boys and 10% of black girls.”15 Williams mentions several studies that demonstrated a positive effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on children’s behavior. In her 2013 article, Dr. Onusic analyzes at length the relationship between nutrition and behavior. It is possible that changing students’ lunch could result in improvements in behavior leading to a reduction in suspensions.
In a 2020 editorial, educator and author Ian Rowe wrote, ”Achieving ‘equity’ only allows a black student to reach an average white peer’s potential, not his or her own–maybe higher–potential.” It is possible that some black students who are performing poorly simply need more nutrients in their diet. Replacing seed oils with animal fats, such as butter, and serving foods rich in Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids could have a significant impact on the academic performance of black children.
Native American lunches matter
Many Native Americans suffer from chronic health conditions, and there is no question that modern convenience foods are a contributing factor. For example, among the Diné (Navajo), diabetes is the number one disease on the reservation; this is followed closely by kidney disease. This poor current state of health is in strong contrast to the excellent health that Native Americans enjoyed before they began eating the white man’s foods. This process of food commoditization among the Diné is described in the documentary A Long Walk in Socialism.
Many children on the Navajo Nation receive free or reduced-cost breakfast, lunch, and snack. There is a high degree of food insecurity among this population, so the students eat the food that is served.
The menus for Gallup-McKinley County Schools are available online. A sample of elementary and high school menu items reveals many foods of modern civilization:
- Breakfast: Egg and cheese muffin sandwich, egg and potato breakfast burrito, Cocoa Puffs cereal with graham crackers, Pillsbury Sweet Apple Frudel, glazed cinnamon rolls, maple breakfast on a stick.
- Lunch: Tater tot casserole with biscuit, breaded chicken patty sandwich, pepperoni pizza, creamy macaroni and cheese.
- After-school snacks: Apple Jacks cereal, animal crackers, blueberry muffin, Goldfish crackers, saltine crackers, marble jack cheese stick.
Depending on the time of day, these meals and snacks are served with fruit, vegetable, and/or milk.
Many of these menu items provide more calories than nutrients and diverge greatly from the traditional nutrient-dense Diné diet, which included beans, squash, corn, mutton, and game such as deer and antelope. The Diné traditionally used nearly all parts of the sheep, including organ meats, and also made head and blood sausage.
There are some efforts to promote the consumption of traditional indigenous foods. In November 2021, the USDA announced an initiative to promote traditional foodways. Diné chefs and gardeners have developed cooking classes for traditional foods. We need to extend these efforts to school lunches.
Making it happen
There are a few obstacles to the implementation of a lunch program like the one at Helix High School.
Regulatory constraints. We must lift the restrictions on the serving of whole milk. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, are lobbying for this change. On April 13, a bill allowing the serving of whole milk and 2% milk passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and has been sent to the state Senate. We must continue to pressure federal and state legislators on this issue and ensure that regulations support nutrient-dense school lunch menu items.
Taste. Children often believe that nutritious foods do not taste good. Helix High School students, however, enjoyed the foods that were carefully prepared with fresh ingredients. Instead of serving vegan burritos and low-fat milk, schools today could serve soups, stews made from bone broth, fresh rolls with butter, whole milk, perhaps even ice cream as an occasional treat. Organ meats, which may be unfamiliar to many children, could be ground up or pureed and added in small quantities to hamburger mix or meatloaf. Some school districts have had great success with bringing in a celebrity chef to lend a fresh approach to school menus. Thoughtful and creative preparation of food ensures that dishes are both nutrient-dense and tasty. For example, menu items that are currently fried in seed oils could be fried in beef tallow. “Deep-fried foods can be perfectly healthy, as long as you use the right oil,” remarks Myles Snider, a professional chef.
Lactose intolerance. 60% to 80% of black people and nearly 100% of Native American people have primary lactose intolerance. For students who have difficulty digesting fluid milk, schools may wish to make available other foods rich in calcium (yogurt, cheese) and may even consider offering the special quick breads served at Helix High School. Soups and stews made from bone broth can also provide calcium. Serving lactose-free milk is also an option.
Budget. For many families, financial and time constraints mean that providing nutrient-dense meals on a consistent basis may be difficult. A recent USDA study revealed that children receive their most nutritious meal at school. If that is the case, why not make it as nutrient-dense as possible? School meal costs have gone up in the last several years. To cover the cost of the high-quality ingredients, a philanthropist or corporate sponsor could fund a pilot program such as the one at Helix High School.
Reaching for the best within us
Through gaining solid reading, writing, and math skills, children can best shape a future in which they are able to pursue their own dreams and goals in today’s complex world. Rather than lower standards or eliminate tests, we can improve the performance of students by providing their growing brains with better fuel. Rejecting modern convenience foods and returning to traditional foodways is a critical step in providing adequate nutrition for children. There are encouraging signs. Dairy farmers are fighting to bring whole milk back to schools. Hilary Boynton, a holistic health counselor and cookbook author, has created School of Lunch, a training academy for people who would like to introduce nutrient-dense foods in their communities. We need to build on these efforts and create a better future for all children, one school lunch at a time.
“If we are truly interested in the physical fitness of youth, we must make it our business to ensure that dollars and cents are not the prime consideration in providing food for their noon meal. We must find a way to serve better foods for students.” –Gina Larson, cafeteria manager
by Katharine Spehar, June 2022
1 Two of the groups that Dr. Price studied were white: the Scottish Gaelics, located in the Islands of the Outer Hebrides, and the Swiss of the Lötschental Valley. Both groups enjoyed good health when they consumed traditional local foods. When those people shifted to the foods of modern civilization, they experienced negative health effects.
2 Price, Weston A., Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 18th printing. (La Mesa: Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, 2008), 247.
3 This term was first coined by George Watson, Ph.D, and described in his 1972 book, Nutrition and Your Mind.
4 Price, Nutrition, 424.
5 Onusic, Sylvia. (2013, April 22). Violent Behavior: A Solution in Plain Sight. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/environmental-toxins/violent-behavior-a-solution-in-plain-sight/
6 As I was wrapping up this article, I discovered a 2012 blog post on this topic.
7 Price, Nutrition, 260.
8 Price, Nutrition, 260.
9 Price, Nutrition, 261.
10 It was in a 2002 article published by the Weston A. Price Foundation that I first read about the Helix High School study. A footnote in the article referenced a video produced by the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation. When I called the PPNF to inquire about the video, I was told that it was available only on VHS. The person answering the phone said that no one ever inquires about this video anymore, so she had to check the price with the Board of Directors and call me back the next day. I purchased the VHS and had it converted to DVD in order to complete my research for this article.
11 Students had a choice of the “training table” line or the salad line. The training table line provided a heartier meal and was intended for students who participated in sports training or had after-school jobs which required physical labor. Boxed lunches, which included seven different types of sandwiches, or the day’s hot meal, were also available. The price of each lunch was $0.35 (!).
12 Dell’Orfano, R.M. (2013, January 11). A Tale of Two Mice. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/childrens-health/a-tale-of-two-mice/
13 Williams, Tyrone. (2021, February 4). Do Black Lives Matter?. https://immunehack.medium.com/do-black-lives-matter-a6d222e23915
14 Williams, Tyrone. (2020, July 27) Why is there a black and white educational gap? https://immunehack.medium.com/why-is-there-a-black-white-educational-gap-think-you-know-the-answer-then-think-again-92d558fda5c
15 Williams, Do Black Lives Matter?