Calcium consumption is critical for proper nourishment and bone development in elementary school age children. Promotion of calcium consumption in early elementary years is critical; school nutrition programs and parents are the most likely authoritative figures that influence children's nutritional habits at the elementary level. Because child nutrition programs are already in place during this time of development in school environments, schools are an ideal environment to promote a positive and beneficial view of milk consumption. Elementary school students are a good target audience because nutrition programs are typically in full force during the school period between 4th through 6th grades. Elementary school students are also more likely to be accepting of the advice of their parents and model healthy behaviors during this period of time.
In a national survey of managers that was conducted to assess social learning factors affecting milk drinking, many environmental factors were found to impact elementary school student's tendency to drink milk (Connors, 2002). The factors specifically identified that affected actually milk consumption included the following: "product packaging, flavor, cafeteria rules, shared experiences and modeling by adults" (Connors, 2002). Other factors influenced school management choices, and these included product packaging and cleanliness as well as freshness of the product (Connors, 2002). School-based nutrition programs have been shown to affect elementary milk consumption perceptions to the greatest extent, followed by personal factors such as parental input and feedback. Parents who actively involve themselves in their children's nutritional behaviors were more likely to influence children's milk drinking behaviors and overall drinking habits.
Children and adults often have different perspectives regarding what makes a product appealing. While adults are typically more interested in quality controls, elementary aged students are much more likely to focus on flavors, packaging, eye catching campaigns and even school rules and procedures (Connors, 2002). This population makes a wonderful target audience because they are much more likely to follow initiatives and rules established by school authorities, which may require milk consumption during mealtime. Students within this age and developmental group are much more likely to be agreeable to such rules and regulations than older children and adults, who have already formulated ideas about what they like and dislike. Children in elementary school are also more likely to model their parent's behaviors. Parents that encourage daily milk consumption were more likely to raise children with health advantages than those who offered alternatives to milk.
Calcium consumption during early childhood has been indicated as a factor in preventing long-term health prevention (Connors, 2002). Calcium consumption can also ensure adequate calcium and phosphorus needs are met. No other product offers as much nutritional impact and benefit to school age children than adequate milk consumption. Though calcium can be acquired in the diet in many fashions, milk consumption, especially among elementary aged students, is one of the most feasible forms of acquisition.
Calcium can be found in many green vegetables and fortified breads and cereals, but typically elementary aged children resist consumption of sufficient quantities of such materials (Connors, 2002 and Frazao, 1999 and Fenster 1994). Some studies have also indicated that minerals such as calcium and phosphorus are more likely to be absorbed from milk than other calcium alternatives. Later in life, adults are also more likely to drink milk than eat a variety of green leafy vegetables if they have been exposed to the nutritional benefits of milk consumption early in life. By including calcium consumption via milk drinking in school meals, scholastic nutritional programs have a mechanism for providing and promoting better health and wellness among students.
Within the United States, a National School Lunch Program exists that was put in place to help students learn about balanced eating, and attain the essential nutritional needs they need while developing (ASFSA, 1989). Students that participate in this program are much more likely to exhibit nutritionally sound eating practices in many situations, and much more likely to drink milk. Schools that enforce nutritionally-based programs are more likely to influence elementary school students eating habits.
According to one study conducted in 1998, children who participated in school lunch programs were much more likely to consume a variety of different foods, including milk, and obtain the necessary "recommended nutrients" than students who opted out of the program (Connors, 2002; Melnik, Rhodes, Wales, Cowell & Wolfe, 1998). This is due in part to the positive message sent to elementary students who participate in school lunch programs. Foodservice manager, teachers and parents all play an important role in the perception of the benefit of milk consumption. Via nutritional programs, foodservice managers can promote milk as the most logical choice for children. By simply stating the obvious facts, such as the fact that milk will provide students with strong bones and energy to help them grow faster, students are much more likely to choose milk over other alternatives. Foodservice managers have to have a positive attitude regarding milk consumption to make a difference however, as do teachers and parents. If these programs are put in place in name only, and not enforced, students are less likely to believe the touted health benefits. Students also learn from modeling, and will model the positive behaviors of their elders. If parents readily drink milk and encourage consumption, elementary students are much more likely to follow suit.
Calcium consumption among elementary school students is most adequately enforced via milk consumption. Studies of school nutritional programs have also shown that students participating in regulated meal programs typically enjoy all of the food products offered, but particularly milk, not just for the taste benefits but also for the nutritional benefits (Connors, 2002). School programs also have the ability to influence opinions regarding milk consumption. Elementary aged students who participate in the National School Lunch Program have been influenced by positive perceptions regarding milk, which also encourages calcium consumption (Connors, 2002).
A national survey of elementary school foodservice managers and elementary school children participating in focus groups was conducted that concerned the use and consumption of milk in elementary school by the American School Food Service Association. This survey included "open-ended questions encouraging managers to share children's comments about milk, as well as their own perceptions of what influenced drinking behaviors" (Connors, 2002; Connors, Bednar, Imhran, & Czajka-Narins, 1999). The study affirmed that manager's perceptions and positive outlook could influence children's perceptions, and thus school-based nutrition programs promoting calcium consumption via milk positively engaged students (Connors, 2002).
In another study of 41 elementary students, children participated again in focus groups and were asked to share their views about characteristics of milk, including their likes and dislikes, tastes etc. (Connors, 2002). Applied to this study was the concept of Social Learning Theory. Social Learning Theory, which proposes that "behavior is dynamic and interacts reciprocally with environmental and personal factors to create habits and generate incentives for change" (Connors, 2002; Glaz, Lewis & Rimer, 1990), was used specifically in this instance to assess students responses to survey personal choice questions. The study concluded that environmental factors do indeed influence calcium consumption behaviors, but personal factors are also very important (Connors, 2002). Personal factors include a child's like of particular temperatures at which milk is offered, colors, taste and smell.
Students who were directly influenced by positive perceptions of calcium consumption via school programs were more likely to consume milk. Food service managers were also found to have the ability to directly impact not only milk consumption behaviors, but also cultural and environmental factors related to the cafeteria (Connors, 2002). Some personal factors that were shown to influence milk consumption behaviors among elementary school students included temperature and taste. If for example, milk is served too warm or without a straw, elementary school students were less likely to decide to consume it.
Health beliefs also play an important role in influencing children's drinking patterns. Students who were taught and who believed that milk consumption was good for them were much more likely to drink milk than others (Connor, 2002). Milk has also been found to be an important contributor of fat and energy in elementary school diets (Leslie, 2002). Milk joins a list of nutritional foods offered to students via elementary school nutrition programs. Evidence has also indicated that milk offers better bone-building benefits that other products and supplements, and a relationship exists between positive bone mineral levels and milk consumption among youths and adults alike (Du, 2002).
Parents have the ability to also influence elementary aged student's consumption of milk products. Milk has been shown in some studies to have more of an effect on later bone mineral density tests than any other mineral or nutrient (Du, 2002). Parents who incorporate milk consumption into their children's diets encourage long-term consumption and acceptance of the product as a healthy alternative to other alternatives offering no health benefits, including soda. Parents can offer milk to students after school, along with an afternoon snack to encourage a positive perception of milk consumption.