Head Start Teachers Lack Nutritional Knowledge, Study Finds

Head Start teachers don’t know enough about nutrition, a new study has revealed. When asked to fill out a nutrition knowledge quiz, instructors in the federally funded Head Start Program not only got substantial parts of it wrong, they also reported having very unhealthy eating habits themselves.

Although the study was limited to only 173 participants, authors caution that the conclusions are still troubling. Children who take part in Head Start spend most of the day with these teachers and therefore lack people to model healthy eating behavior.

The quiz covered elementary nutritional concepts like the details of the food pyramid. Many teachers were unable to correctly say how many servings of fruits and vegetables were needed per day, and which food group took up the biggest portion of the daily serving allotment.

Only 3% of the teachers were able to answer more than 3 of the 5 question correctly, according to paper published in this month’s Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Lead author Shreela Sharma also noted that nearly half of the teachers who took part in the study hadn’t eaten a single serving of fruit in the previous day, while more than half ate a portion of french fries.

Healthy eating habits are especially important for children from low income families, who are hit harder by the obesity epidemic, according to Sharma, who studies nutrition at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. A 2011 study found that 25 percent of preschoolers who attend Head Start were obese, compared to a national average for 2 to 5 year old kids of 9 percent.

What is doubly alarming about the findings is the fact that pre-school teachers in Head Start programs are on average more educated than in other early education alternatives available to parents. Head Start requires all its instructors to have at least a college degree, something that isn’t necessary everywhere.

Basic nutrition education is part of the standard Head Start curriculum, and teachers are expected to introduce their charges to basic food groups and other rudimentary concepts related to diet and nutrition. It is part of standard training offered to all teachers placed in Head Start classrooms.

“The teachers want to do right, they’re there because they love their kids, we just need to provide them with the tools that they need to make this environment healthier,” like teacher nutrition training and worksite wellness programs in schools, Sharma said.

Poor nutritional knowledge likely extends to elementary, middle and high schools, according to Mike Prelip, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health and former middle school teacher.