Nutrition for Body and Mind: “Jenny is a Good Thing” and the Head Start Program

Oscar season is always a special time of year for the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab. It’s a chance for us to reflect on the numerous Oscar-winning films we preserve for the American people and to remember our own brush with Oscars glory (2013 Academy Award of Merit, accepted on behalf of all film lab employees by director Christopher Nolan—we “[turn] silver and plastic into dreams”).

Winning aside, you may have heard various actors and actresses say that it’s an honor just to be nominated. We agree, and we’re going to focus on one of those honored films today. Jenny is a Good Thing (1969) received a nomination in the Documentary (Short Subject) category at the 42nd Academy Awards. Directed by Joan Horvath, narrated by Burt Lancaster, and with musical contributions by Noel “Paul” Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary), Jenny is a Good Thing highlights the importance of nutrition education in the Head Start program.

Head Start was created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. On May 18, 1965, President Johnson announced Project Head Start, designed in order “to make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives.” Head Start centers were to be places that would prepare children in poverty for school and position them for success in learning and life. The program was initially limited to the summer months, but soon expanded into a full-school-year schedule.

According to the companion discussion guide, Jenny is a Good Thing promotes the idea that in addition to offering basic nourishment, the Head Start nutrition program also provides “unique opportunities for program enrichment throughout the day, and a link through which communication and parent involvement can be initiated and strengthened.” For example, the film begins with a teacher opening a peapod and asking the children to describe what they find inside. What color are the peas? Are they flat or round? How do they taste? The exercise leads the children toward connecting a large vocabulary of descriptive words to their own experience and understanding of the world.

The film notes that many of the children coming to Head Start centers may not have had an opportunity to eat breakfast before arriving. The food they help prepare sustains them throughout the day and allows their focus to be on learning and development. Parents are brought in as special guests during mealtimes, helping to strengthen relationships between parents and teachers, and parent and child. The nutrition program even provides an opportunity for children to garden and grow the food shared at meals.

As we see the children preparing for a nap, Burt Lancaster delivers the fundamental argument of the film: “Nutrition, like every part of Head Start, works to break down poverty’s most corrosive effect: believing you are less than what you are. These children must learn that they are good because they exist. They must know they belong to a society that cherishes their existence.”

You can learn more about the preservation of Jenny is a Good Thing in the first installment of our new Film Preservation 201 series!

For more information about Oscar-winning films at the National Archives, click on the following titles:

If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, check out the 12th Annual Showcase of Academy Award–Nominated Documentaries and Short Subjects from February 24-28, 2016, in the National Archives’ William C. McGowan Theater!

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