Can We Cut Crime by Changing Cafeteria Menus?

February 11, 2014

I know; I know. It’s controversial. Some say crazy, but what if we could reduce crime and violence by simply changing cafeteria menus? A high school in Appleton, Wisconsin tried an experiment under the enlightened guidance of their principal, LuAnn Coenen. She wanted to see if she could positively affect the fighting, weapons-carrying and general lack of focus and discipline in the school by changing the food the kids ate.

Vending machines were replaced with water coolers; hamburgers and French fries were taken off the menu and replaced with fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grain breads and a salad bar. With the departure of junk food, she also saw the departure of vandalism, litter and the need for police patrolling her hallways. The students were calm, socially engaged and focused on their schoolwork. Problems were minimal. And all Ms. Coenen did was change the menu.

You can dismiss this as a fluke, a ‘results not typical’ scenario (like with diet plans); or the ravings of healthy eating fanatics. True; no scientists have ever seriously investigated the changes at this Wisconsin high school (even after seven years of this). And healthy eating surely divides us nearly as deeply as politics. There are the zealots who believe that food cures all ills and the equally zealous skeptics who say it’s all nonsense.

And yet, is this really such a radical, left-of-center idea? There is little debate that food can affect the way the brain works, thus our behavior. While it accounts for only 2% of our body weight, our brain uses about 20% of our energy. To generate such energy, we need nutrients…lots of them…vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids…all obtained from nutritious foods.

So the question to be asked is this: what are the effects of constantly eating processed foods that lack the sufficient nutrients we need to operate our brains in a clear, sane way?

Obesity is a no-brainer (pun intended) when it comes to the consequences of junk food on the body. But could it be that unhealthy eating results in more damage than a big belly? Does one high school in Wisconsin point to the connection between healthy eating and behavior? Can it be a coincidence that the dramatic increase in crime, violence and lack of civility has grown hand in hand with the dramatic move toward processed junk food in our modern Western diet?

Proof exists that reducing sugar and fat intake leads to higher IQ’s and improved grades in school. Stephen Schoenthaler, professor of criminal justice at California State University proved that much when he conducted a study on students at 803 low-income neighborhood schools in New York City. With a supervised change in the students’ diets, passing final exam grades went from 11% below the national average to 5% above it.

Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University of Oxford took his study further, examining the effects of nutrients on violent behavior in prisons. In a facility for young men, 231 volunteers were divided into 2 groups: one was given supplements meeting their daily nutrition requirements of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. The other group took placebos. No one at the prison knew who took what, so no influence could be exerted.

The results were convincing. After 4 months of supplements, the prisoners in the study taking supplements showed an average of 26% fewer violations compared to the preceding period. There was no significant change in the prisoners taking the placebo. It gets better. The number of violent violations in the men taking supplements decreased 37% while the placebo group again showed no change. And since a prison was used for the study, you can hardly question the control. In such an environment, where people eat, sleep and live under strict regulation, there is little possibility that outside variables could have affected the outcome. The results were real. Poor nutrition triggered bad behavior.

But we don’t need a prison study to see that fact. Ask any parent or teacher who has to handle children after they have indulged in soda, candy and cake at a party. After you ‘scrape them off the ceiling,’ you are subjected to tantrums, tears and hyperactive behavior.

For me, this information is not new at all. Many years ago, I was asked to teach healthy cooking at Graterford Prison outside Philadelphia. They had an organic gardening program and were seeing incredible changes in the men with gardening and eating the vegetables they grew. Violence was substantially reduced in the men in the program. I loved teaching them. They were peaceful and engaged in the program. A change in state government brought on the demise of the garden and the prison descended once again into violent chaos. Eventually the institution closed.

Since then, I have volunteered in various high schools in underserved neighborhoods in Philadelphia and when we teach cooking, change diets, grow vegetables in raised beds and educate the kids and their parents about healthy food, we see change. Violence reduces and children become focused and more engaged. I have seen it happen.

There are not many scientists who would argue that nutrients are essential for brain development. So how can we think that the dramatic changes we have made in the modern diet (and not for the better…) would not have an effect on the brain and how it functions?

When you eat sugar, your blood sugar levels jump, giving you a burst of energy. Soon after, your blood sugar levels fall and you grow tired and foggy. As your body fights to keep your blood sugar levels from falling too low, your body produces adrenaline…and you become irritable and sometimes aggressively angry. H-h-m-m-m-m-m-m…

Look, the link between food and health is clear. Most people, even if they don’t make healthy choices realize that nutritious food means a healthy body (for the most part). But food and behavior? Not so much.

And yet, crime is a major issue for most cities. Truancy is a major issue for most cities. Lack of focus, poor grades and the inability to compete academically or physically is becoming epidemic in this country. Why is there not more focus on the effects of food on behavior and violence? The new science on this topic has been met with little reaction; we don’t see news stories about it. Is there so little interest in dietary solutions because there is no money to be made by the pharmaceutical companies that tout their behavior-modifying drugs to our children? Could it be that once again special interests are blocking the path to the truth? Could it be that we should be looking to a high school in Wisconsin for the recipe (pun intended) to reduce violent behavior and create emotional well-being?

And while there are certainly other factors besides food and nutrition that play a role in behavior: environment, drugs, background, socio-economics, etc, should we be so quick to dismiss eating broccoli to create one peaceful world?