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Nutrition Education in California Schools

Provides benefits of nutrition education, best practices, funding options, state and federal policy, resources, trainings, and contact information for Health and Nutrition Educators in California schools.


Nutrition Education (NE) is a set of learning experiences designed to assist in healthy eating choices and other nutrition-related behavior.

The California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division (NSD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Nutrition Service (FNS) strongly encourage all California schools to offer a NE class or to integrate NE into the core subjects for grades PreK–12. Ideally, educators would teach NE as a separate subject to ensure that nutrition is taught in a sequential and comprehensive way. When nutrition is the focus, teachers can adequately prepare, schedule instructional time, work on skill building, and behavior change. Then, educators can reinforce NE in other content areas giving children more consistent exposure to nutrition concepts and messages.

Each school, depending upon grade groups, requirements, and needs will offer NE in a different way. There are a variety of ways to effectively incorporate NE into each school. NE can be enriched by expanding connections with (1) the cafeteria; (2) Farm to School programs and instructional gardens; (3) food tasting activities; (4) cooking experiences; and (5) core curricula. NE lessons, paired with garden experiences, and taste-testing can help increase student participation in the Child Nutrition Programs (CNP).

Benefits of NE

Offering NE in schools at all age levels helps prepare students for critical life skills and life-long healthy habits. Children who develop healthy habits at an early age are more likely to be well, stay well, and do well in school.

Students who graduate from high school with a strong background in NE will have the skills to make informed nutrition and health decisions. As with any subject, students succeed when they begin building basic skills early, so that when they graduate from high school, they can continue to make healthy food choices for themselves. And most important, students who have developed competencies in NE will begin adulthood with an appreciation and healthy enjoyment of food, as well as a positive body image. The prevalence of obesity among children has roughly tripled in the past 30 years. Numerous health risks are associated with obesity; therefore, schools have the responsibility to provide effective NE to teach students to navigate a complex world of food and nutrition choices.

  • Meta-analyses indicated that NE programs that cover multiple years can effectively decrease the prevalence of obesity (Gonzalez-Suarez 2009)
  • Moreover, multidisciplinary school-based interventions, including family involvement, are the best and most sustainable approach (Kelishadi 2014).

Best Practices

NE programs may be enriched by expanding connections with (1) the cafeteria; (2) Farm to School programs and instructional gardens; (3) food tasting activities; (4) cooking experiences; and (5) core curricula. Below are simple suggestions to help increase these connections.

Cafeteria Connections

The school cafeteria is an ideal setting for students to practice healthy eating. Coordinating the school food service program with classroom lessons allows students to apply critical thinking and decision-making skills they learn in the classroom. Teachers can link their classrooms with the cafeteria, and the school’s child nutrition director or cafeteria manager can link the meal service with classroom instruction. When planning a NE program, teachers can be sure that both connections will broaden students’ application of NE.

Ideas for Teachers

The following ideas for teachers may help students to make connections between the classroom education and the foods served in the cafeteria.

  • Request a guided tour of the cafeteria.
  • Invite the child nutrition director or manager to visit the class.
  • Consult the child nutrition director on food safety issues when classroom cooking experiences are planned.
  • Work with the district’s child nutrition services to purchase foods for NE lessons.
  • Coordinate student projects that involve the cafeteria.
  • Create poster contests in the cafeteria.
  • Share student artwork on cafeteria bulletin boards, on menus, and at food stations.
  • Institute a family night where child nutrition personnel showcase the connection between the classroom, cafeteria, and school garden.
  • Include lessons and activities for students to learn about the school meal and menu planning requirements and how school meals contribute to health.
  • Initiate a classroom garden or desk top gardens.
  • Initiate a school garden.
  • Create NE related activities for Earth Day in March.
  • Celebrate Food Literacy Month in September.
  • Use helping in the cafeteria as a student reward.
  • Encourage teachers and administrative staff to subscribe to email nutrition announcements and tips.
Ideas for Food Service Staff and Child Nutrition Directors

The following ideas for child nutrition directors and cafeteria managers may help students to make connections between the food served in the cafeteria and classroom education.

  • Provide meals that are appealing to students and that meet the state and federal nutrition standards.
  • Include posters and messaging related to nutrition themes in the cafeteria and coordinate with teachers to use the same themes.
  • Support classroom lessons by featuring foods that illustrate key messages from the classroom.
  • Offer expertise in food safety to teachers planning classroom cooking.
  • Coordinate menus with school events.
  • Decorate the cafeteria with food related drawings done by students.
  • Post the nutrition content of foods served.
  • Involve students and families in the planning of the menus.
  • Ask older students to compare the prices and nutrients of school meals with fast food menus.
  • Offer menus in the cafeteria that reflect the cultural diversity and preferences of students.
  • Participate in training sessions on NE and how to market school meals.
  • Invite parents to lunch in the cafeteria and give them nutrition information about the meal.
  • Offer food samples of new fruits and vegetables to students who wait in the cafeteria line and use a new way of serving foods while providing nutrition information.

Farm to School Programs

Ideas for Teachers
  • Take a tour of the garden.
  • Start an afterschool or during school garden club.
  • Bring a farmer into the classroom.
  • Get the whole family involved, create an extra credit assignment to plant a vegetable, herb, or fruit.
  • Take a field trip to a farm.
  • Show educational films about food or gardening.
  • Establish Farm to Summer NE activities coordinating local foods served in the cafeteria
Ideas for Farmers or Garden Teachers
  • Bring the Harvest of the Month (HOTM) boxes into the classroom monthly and utilize the HOTM curriculum External link opens in new window or tab..
  • Bring a potted plant or tree into the classroom, so students can see how the plant grows.

Food Tasting Activities

Ideas for Teachers
  • Try taste testing in the garden.
  • Incorporate a theme or holiday into taste testing.
  • Use fun names for your food samples.
Ideas for Cafeteria

Invite parents to taste test the food at the beginning of the year (i.e., at Back to School Night). This could help increase participation, invite parents to give their feedback, and help determine the most popular dishes).

Cooking Experiences

Ideas for Teachers
  • Connect a NE lesson with a cooking activity.
  • Try cooking or making a healthy dish or snack in the classroom.
  • Incorporate a theme or holiday cooking experience.
  • Create an extra credit or homework assignment to cook or make a healthy dish, snack, or smoothie at home.

Core Curricula

Ideas for Teachers
  • Collaborate with other teachers to continue the student’s health and nutrition learning experience.


Cafeteria Funds

The school district’s nonprofit school food service account, also known as the cafeteria fund, can be used to cover allowable costs associated with NE or related activities. In order to use cafeteria funds for these types of expenses the district must be able to demonstrate the NE related expenses directly support the operation or improvement of the CNP, and be reasonable, necessary, and allocable in accordance with Title 2, Code of Federal Regulations, sections 200.402 to 200.411 External link opens in new window or tab..

Any use of cafeteria funds for the purchase of NE related materials or activities must receive CDE prior approval. In requesting prior approval for these types of purchases the district must be able to provide the following:

  • Description of the materials, services, or activities
  • Estimated or quoted price
  • Explanation of how the purchase will improve upon or support the CNP
  • References to any applicable research or data supporting the proposed project

Please submit any NE prior approval requests to the Resource Management Unit by emailing your request to

Grant Ideas

  • The California Agriculture in the Classroom lists grants and scholarships to support educating youth about agriculture, for a list of opportunities visit the Learn About Ag website External link opens in new window or tab. and select the Grants and Scholarships tab.
  • Fuel up to Play 60 (FUTP60) offer grants for one Healthy Eating Play and one Physical Activity Play, for more information visit the FUTP60 website External link opens in new window or tab. and select the funding tab.

Policy Guidance

Federal Law

At the federal level, the government agency that oversees NE, the USDA FNS, encourages all schools in the United States to offer NE. However, if a school participates in the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program, the local educational agency must (1) adopt a local school wellness policy (LSWP), and (2) the LSWP must establish goals for NE and NE promotion. The goals will be unique to the school. For more information, visit the CDE LSWP web page.

The USDA promotes NE nationwide by making available a comprehensive database of Team Nutrition NE materials for program operators of the CNPs and intermittently providing grants to state agencies to promote NE and healthy eating.

State Law

At the state level, the state agency that oversees NE, the CDE NSD strongly encourages all California schools to offer a NE class or to integrate NE into the core subjects for grades PreK–12.

California Education Code (EC) Section 8997 states:

The Legislature encourages nutritional education instructional activities that comply with all of the following:

(a) They emphasize the appealing aspects of healthy eating.

(b) They are participatory, developmentally appropriate, and enjoyable.

(c) They engage families as partners in their children’s education.

(d) They encourage teachers responsible for nutrition education, who have received nutrition instruction during their credentialing program, to be adequately prepared and regularly participate in professional development activities to effectively deliver the nutrition education program as planned. Preparation and professional development activities should provide basic knowledge of nutrition, combined with skill practice in program-specific activities and instructional techniques and strategies designed to promote healthy eating habits. (Added by Stats. 2002, Ch. 1163, Sec. 2. Effective January 1, 2003. Section operative July 1, 2004, pursuant to Section 8997.)

The CDE promotes NE in California schools in a variety of ways:

  • The CDE promotes the Health Education Content Standards (PDF) for California Public Schools, Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve which outlines the skills and knowledge students need to become health literate (which includes nutrition concepts).
  • The CDE has published the Nutrition Education Resource Guide (NERG), an instructional resource for California schools, from kindergarten through grade twelve, to implement effective, standards-based NE programs for students. The guide was designed to: (1) meet The Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools Kindergarten, Through Grade Twelve, in the Nutrition and Physical Activity content area, and (2) address the nutrition competencies.
  • The CDE developed an online CNP Resource Library to house nutrition education, cooking in the classroom, and recipe resources for teachers, program operators, and parents to use.
  • The CDE received a USDA Team Nutrition Training grant for 2021–22 to fund school nutrition program operator grantees to develop standardized recipes using locally grown products, to engage students in taste testing, and nutrition education.


Nutrition Education Resources

Resource Description
Lists by program NE curriculum, recipes, cooking in the classroom toolkits, and additional NE resource database links for program operators, teachers, and parents.
The CDE promotes The Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve which outlines the skills and knowledge students need to become health literate (which includes nutrition concepts).
Provides resources, technical assistance, and training to support the USDA CNPs to incorporate a farm to school program into their existing food service operation.
Provides resources listed by CNP, examples are posters, curriculum, garden activities, stickers, recipe books, and more.


Online Trainings

Online Courses

Course Number Course Name Training Topic Target Audience
Nutrition Education
Teachers, Child Care Providers, Nutrition or Wellness Coordinators, Food Service Directors, and Expanded Learning Program Staff
Nutrition Education
Teachers, Child Care Providers, Nutrition or Wellness Coordinators, Food Service Directors, and Expanded Learning Program Staff
Program Management
Food Service Directors and Staff, Chief Business Officials, and Wellness Coordinators

Additional Online Training Databases

To find additional online training databases, visit:

  • The Chef Ann Foundation The Lunch Box web page External link opens in new window or tab. to access webinars related to increasing participation, implementing farm-to-school with recipes and cycle menus, implementing and growing a successful After-the-Bell breakfast program, and much more!


If you have any questions, contact the CDE NSD by phone at 800-952-5609 or by email at

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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