How Michigan faculties are connecting diet and behavioral well being


This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to meet health challenges. This is made possible by funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

In northwest Michigan, educators, psychiatrists, and food service directors are joining forces to support the children they serve by connecting the dots between good nutrition and good mental health.

Paula Martin is the community nutritionist at the Traverse City-based nonprofit Groundwork Center, which provides nutrition-based programs for the Intermediate School District (TBAISD) in Traverse Bay Area. She quotes Studies This has proven that by simply introducing school breakfast programs, students improve school performance, stay more focused during class, and have fewer behavioral problems, better attendance, fewer delays, fewer trips to school nurses and higher graduation rates.

“”Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field, “says Martin.” While we help improve nutritional quality, we help calm the brain. When children’s basic nutritional needs are not met, they start at the bottom of a well. “
Chef Fred Laughlin prepares to lead a tour of the Sara Hardy Farmers Market in downtown Traverse City with attendees at the Groundwork Center’s 2019 Farms, Food and Health Conference.
Groundwork Center staff see farm-to-school projects and school-based eating programs as an opportunity to address negative childhood experiences and through a model that takes child wellbeing into account in terms of nutrition, mental health, exercise, body composition, sleep and wellbeing, Build resilience to brain function.

“Children who experienced trauma early in life have very little patience when they’re hungry. They need to have a snack ready. The time it takes from stove to table can lead to serious breakdowns,” says Martin .

Behavioral health and nutrition programming

Providers in northwest Michigan have set up a variety of programs to improve behavioral health and nutrition for children in schools. The Northwest Michigan Health Department (HDNM) has established health centers for children and adolescents in the public school districts of Alanson, Boyne Falls, Central Lake, Charlevoix, East Jordan and Ellsworth. In addition to the traditional school nurse, these centers provide children with primary care, vision and hearing exams, health education, behavioral and developmental exams, and mental health care.

In the counties of Otsego, Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet, behavioral health workers have also introduced evidence-based rollout Mindful schools Curriculum in class. Teachers guide students through simple mindfulness exercises in 15-minute sessions taught twice a week for eight weeks.
Second graders at Petoskey’s Central Elementary School will practice mindfulness in 2019.
“You could help students take a ‘mindful minute’ to pay attention to what is happening around them and in their minds [and] to notice the feelings they’re having, “says Lynne DeMoor, HDNM health coordinator and nutritionist.” One thing children tell us is that it helps them calm down and not get upset about things. “

Another exercise is called “hot cocoa breath”. Children should imagine ingesting a cup of hot cocoa that is too hot to drink. While you wait for it to cool down, take a slow breath in through your nose and enjoy the delicious aroma. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth to cool the cocoa.

“Children learn to use techniques like this in hot moments. They remember,” We could take a hot cocoa breath now, “and know that it helps them feel better,” says DeMoor. “We also teach them a lot about feeling sensations in their body that are indicative of emotions – shoulders creep up to their ears, teeth clenched, hands in fists – in order to recognize and know about these signals in their bodies what they could mean, and solve something boiling over beforehand. “

Children from the second grade onwards have shared that the techniques helped them stay focused in school and more easily fall asleep before bed. Teens can practice mindfulness to replace negative thoughts or comments from their peers with self-compassion. And teachers have reported having more teachable minutes. When the classroom shows signs of chaos, teachers lead their students to take a mindful minute to help them curb their behavior.

“Teachers like to use it during transitions, like when kids come back to class after their lunch break,” says DeMoor. Another important part of the curriculum is learning to be grateful and kind, and being able to develop their own appreciation of the things for which they are grateful. [such as that] You saw your favorite color or the fresh air you breathe. When we find these ways to be grateful, we can be softer towards ourselves. “

Brain foods promote intelligence and good behavior

According to DeMoor, eating healthy is equally important to the behavioral health of students.

“You’ve heard the phrase ‘hangry’. There’s a really direct effect,” says DeMoor. “First and foremost, our brain relies on a steady supply of blood sugar to generate energy. Other body systems can convert fat or muscles into energy, but the brain cannot.”

That doesn’t mean old food does the trick. Healthy blood sugar levels are created by foods like nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, berries, and legumes. DeMoor explains that 95% of the serotonin that the brain’s neurotransmitters rely on is made in the gut during digestion.

USDA Farm-to-School grants fund HDNM’s “Try It Tuesday” program at Petoskey Public Schools, which offers locally grown food for classroom taste tests. Students choose “tried”, “liked” or “loved” after trying the food. When a meal receives an abundance of “loved one” votes, the food service director adds it to the rotation of the lunch menu.

TBAISD has farm-to-school programs as well SNAP-Ed Programs in many of his schools too. Some schools have garden beds or tire houses where nutrition classes, taste tests, Michigan Harvest of the Month Activities or cooking shows.
The Buckley School / Community Garden in Buckley, MI. This institution is an equal opportunity provider.
“We do a lot of nutrition work with schools,” says Marshall Collins, TBAISD advisor for school health and social services. “We are also working with the school and the community to try to support policies, systems and environmental change so that we are not just teaching but trying to make a change within the system.”

Collins agrees that strategies such as mindfulness and trauma-related approaches further help children achieve better behavioral health.

“It plays into that whole child approach. So many things affect child behavior over time – … how children behave, how children eat, and how children learn. We can help if we do some of these things take it off their plate, “says Collins. “The diet is simple. It just ensures better nutrition in the school system so that the children feel better. Our children are exposed to different types of vegetables and fruits, learn how to watch their calories, how much to put on the plate and doesn’t overeat. We, as adults, get irritable when we don’t eat. Imagine you’re a kid. “

We achieve what we eat

While academics have always been about brain performance, new tools like mindfulness and recognizing the role of diet in behavioral health are giving more children the opportunity to achieve academic success and feel happier while doing it. Too often, according to Collins, schools expect students to do a great job without considering how well they do in their life outside of school.

“We don’t know if this student had a healthy breakfast. We don’t know if he had the right amount of proper sleep. We don’t really know what’s going on in their life,” he says. “The first thing we focus on is our priority, which really should be our priority, the children. We have to make sure they are looked after.”

As a freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest to write about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapidly growing media and chairs The Tree Amigos, Wyoming City Tree Commissioner. Her greatest achievement is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at or

Photo courtesy of Buckley School / Community Garden by TBAISD. Mindfulness photo courtesy of the Northwest Michigan Department of Health. All other photos courtesy of Groundwork Center.