Study shows benefits of Healthy Harlem programme

Mathematica Policy Research posted a new research brief that summarises findings from a study of Healthy Harlem, an after-school programme aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles. The study, by James Mabli, Martha Bleeker and Mary Kay Fox, showed that participation in the Healthy Harlem programme led to increased physical activity and improved weight status for overweight and obese pupils.

Key components of Healthy Harlem include physical activity, healthy snacks, nutrition education lessons and parent workshops. To assess Healthy Harlem’s effectiveness, the authors monitored pupils at 21 after-school sites during an initial baseline year and then measured programme impacts after two and three years of participation. They collected data through a pupil survey, a fitness test and direct measurements of height and weight. Key findings were as follows:

  • A 5.5 percent decrease in mean BMI z-scores after two years of participation and a 9.0 percent decrease after three years of participation. According to the report, a BMI z-score reflects the number of standard deviations a pupil’s BMI is from the mean BMI for a reference population.
  • A decrease of 12.2 percentage points in the percentage of pupils who were overweight or obese after two years, and a decrease of 18.4 percentage points after three years.
  • An increase in the percentage of pupils considered to be within the Harlem Fitness Zone, a measure of fitness based on a pupil’s ability to complete a minimum number of laps, defined for age-and-gender subgroups.

Source: The impact of Healthy Harlem on the body mass index and weight status of adolescents after two and three Years (March 2018), Mathematica Policy Research

Unhealthy school lunches nibble away academic performance

A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper looks at the effect of offering healthier school lunches on end-of-year test scores for pupils in California.

Michael L Anderson and colleagues analysed data collected over a five-year period (academic years 2008/2009 to 2012/2013) from around 9,700 schools that reported test scores on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting exam, a state-wide test given to all pupils in grades 2 to 11 (Years 3 to 13). In order to determine the link between food quality and pupil achievement, they also collected data from the California Department of Education on school districts’ meal vendors for the same time span. Over that five-year period, about 12% of California schools contracted an outside company to provide lunch for at least one school year. The nutritional value of the school lunch menus was analysed by nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute using the Healthy Eating Index.

The results of the study found that in years when schools offered a healthy lunch menu, pupil test scores were on average higher (effect size +0.03 to +0.04). In addition, test scores for pupils who qualified for reduced-price or free school lunches, (and therefore more likely to eat the healthy lunches), increased by about 40% in comparison to pupils who didn’t receive free school lunches.  The positive effect of healthy lunches on academic achievement persisted for the duration of a long-term contract.

Source: School lunch quality and academic performance (March 2017), NBER Working Paper No. 23218, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Food for thought

Some people believe that eating together as a family has important implications for children. A study published in Child Development investigates the link between the frequency of family breakfasts and dinners and children’s academic and behavioural outcomes, in a sample of 21,400 children aged 5–15. In child fixed-effects models, which controlled for unchanging aspects of children and their families, there were no significant (p< .05) relations between family meal frequency (FMF) and either academic or behavioural outcomes. These results were the same for various specifications of the FMF variables and did not differ by child age.

Source: Family meals and child academic and behavioral outcomes (2012), Child Development, 83(6).

Study suggests Head Start advantages dwindle after preschool

Similar in some ways to the UK’s Sure Start programme, Head Start is a US programme that promotes the school readiness of low-income children from birth to five. Services include preschool education; medical, dental, and mental health care; nutrition services; and efforts to help parents encourage their child’s development. A follow-up study has now shown that there are few lasting impacts of the programme on children in Kindergarten (Year 1) to 3rd Grade (Year 4).

The study included nearly 5,000 newly entering, eligible 3- and 4-year-old children who were randomly assigned to either: a Head Start group that had access to Head Start programme services; or a control group that did not have access to Head Start, but could enroll in other early childhood programmes or non-Head Start services selected by their parents. Data collection began in autumn 2002 and continued through to 2008, following children until they were in Year 4.

Evidence from the study showed initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of Year 4, there were very few impacts found in any of four key programme domains: cognitive development, social-emotional development, health status and services, and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favourable or unfavourable impacts for children.

Source: Third grade follow-up to the Head Start impact study: Final report (2012), OPRE