This collection of photographs of school lunches from around the world has been shared on twitter and facebook a lot. On the off chance that you haven’t seen it yet it’s interesting and mouth-watering. It’s sad to see the American school lunch. Even sadder to know that Canada doesn’t have a national school lunch program. However, it’s nice to see that some countries have nutritious and appealing school lunches. We can only hope that North America will learn from their examples.
A few months ago a study claimed to show that school lunches (in the US) were healthier than lunches brought from home. At the time, I considered blogging about it but I really wasn’t sure what to say. It’s such a problematic subject. However, when I came across this article I knew that I had to comment.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the article, or can’t be bothered to read it just now, it’s the story of a dad who fights back against the nanny state at his daughter’s school. She was sent home with a note that read:
Dr. and Mrs. Puckett, The cafeteria reported to me that Alia’s lunch today included four chocolate bars, a bag of marshmallows, Ritz crackers and a pickle. Please see that she packs a proper lunch tomorrow
Upon the line requesting a parental signature, the father wrote “request declined”. The father also states that his daughter did not have four chocolate bars, rather, she had three squares of dark chocolate (two of which were for others). He also denied that she had any Ritz crackers, stating that she had some lunch meat. Because that makes this packed lunch oh so much better.
I understand parents desires not to allow schools and dietitians into their children’s home made lunches. I know that if I had children I would feel much better sending them to school with packed lunches than allowing them to eat the school lunches at which pizza has magically become a vegetable.
My concern with the first study is that it’s very difficult to quantify lunch quality. I’ve worked with school boards and teachers to implement provincial school nutrition policy and I’ve had concerns with such policies. There is something wrong with a chocolate chip granola bar meets school standards, but the same brand of bar with added almonds fails to meet the policy due to excessive fat content. When policies present with issues such as this, I wonder how much healthier the school lunches truly were. If children are bringing lunches which are mostly nutritious but contain one treat would this automatically doom them to failure in comparison to the school lunches? Are the packed lunches consisting of chips and candy skewing the results in the favour of the school lunches? If students dislike the school lunches and don’t eat them, should they still be concluded to be more nutritious than home made lunches?
The issue of the father refusing to sign off on the request that his daughter bring “a proper lunch” is another matter. The teacher who sent the note certainly overstepped his or her bounds. However, a lunch consisting of chocolate, marshmallows, lunch meat, and pickles is certainly not a nutritious balanced meal. I’ve heard stories from teachers in which parents are sending young children to school with large bags of chips and king-sized chocolate bars for recess, with more of the same for lunch. Part of the problem with the angry dad story is that he’s allowing his young daughter to pack her own lunches. As independent as she may be, she is clearly not equipped to be preparing her own lunches. Ideally, she would be working with her parents to determine the contents of her lunch bag. No young child should have free reign over their lunch bag contents. But what should be done about parents who pack their children off to school with chips, candy bars, and pop? Anything? I wish I had a good answer. Some parents don’t have the money, time, education, etc to prepare nutritious lunches for their children. Should we have a mandatory school lunch program for all children who stay at school for lunch?
I had mixed feelings as I read the recent CBC coverage of peanut butter substitute bans in PEI schools. Part of me thinks that many children could do with a little more variety than the traditional PBS (peanut butter substitute) and jelly. There are loads of other great lunch ideas out there. Parents have blogs showing school lunches, my friend Dallas (@eatrealbereal) often tweets photos of the amazing school lunches she makes for her daughter, many nutrition websites such as Dietitians of Canada and Eat Right Ontario provide suggestions for school lunches and snacks.
Another part of me argued with that initial part of me. PBS is an affordable non-perishable, quick and easy lunch option for parents. It’s also widely enjoyed by children. In a time and economically strapped world, PBS&J is a handy lunch option to have. Taking that option away limits the possibilities for many parents: both those who don’t have much time and money, and those who have children who are known to bring home uneaten meticulously prepared nutritious lunches.
I get where the schools are coming from. It’s extremely difficult to monitor every lunch and not every parent is going to take the time to label lunches as nut-free. School officials don’t want to be responsible if a child dies on their watch; who can blame them?
Soy is also a common allergen. Is replacing one common allergen with another really the greatest idea? Where do we draw the line though? As allergies become increasingly prevalent in our society we’re going to need a better solution than to outright ban every risky food.
Truthfully, I need this girl telling people to read my blog more than she needs me telling people to read hers. Still, Never Seconds is a really great project started by Martha Payne, a nine-year-old girl in Scotland to chronicle her unfortunate school lunches. It’s gone viral and other students from around the world have been sending in photos of their lunches as well. Seemed a fitting follow-up to yesterday’s post about the dismal state of many Nova Scotia school cafeterias.
I was reading an article in The Star about the small (but mighty) victory she’s achieved through this blog – additional fruit and veg upon request – and was sorely disappointed by some of the comments posted by readers. A couple of them suggested that because this girl’s mother is a doctor that she should be bringing a lunch from home. Regardless of the reasons for each student to be eating school lunches they should all be provided with palatable and nutritious meals. I don’t know why the readers making these comments seem to think that they’re in a position to pass judgement and I wonder if they think that it’s okay for children who can’t afford to bring healthy lunches from home to be fed meagre nutritionally lacking meals at school. Someone else commented that the meal posted with the article (white rice, corn, spring rolls, and soup with noodles) looked good. While it’s not the least nutritious lunch I’ve ever seen it’s far from ideal. It’s mostly beige, where are the leafy greens and the colourful veg? Where is the protein? Why should children have to settle for nutritionally lacking meals? Props to Martha for taking a stand!
Unfortunate Update: An article from June 14th states that Martha’s blog has been shut-down due to her being banned from bringing a camera into school by the school board.
Yet another update: Following a huge public outcry, Martha’s blog has been once again given the green light and raised considerably more money. Read more here.
I was so proud of the Nova Scotia school food and beverage policy. It came out years before most other provinces and still seemed superior to the policy which came out in Ontario just last year. Since returning to Nova Scotia I have become increasingly disillusioned. Several people have told me about issues with foods that are currently available in schools. While it seems that some schools are adhering to the policy others are not or are at least doing so to the loosest degree possible.
The above photo was kindly provided to me by Drew Moore as evidence of the current state of school lunches. Pretty much all I see in this photo are carbs and fat. This is exactly the sort of lunch that’s going to lead children to be lethargic and inattentive in the afternoon. Another friend of mine (the one who prompted this post) asked me if there was anyway that I could get into schools and do some work with the cafeterias as the food choices are dismal. I was puzzled because of the school nutrition policy but apparently this has fallen by the wayside. She told me that large bags of popcorn are always available as well as cookies and fruit and vegetables are scarce. One of her students forgot a lunch one day so she went down to the cafeteria to get him something and came back with an orange and a piece of toast as those were the only two remotely healthy options available. Another parent told me that there’s no cafeteria in his children’s school but the snack shack doesn’t sell soda or chocolate. Upon further questioning it was revealed that there are “questionable alternatives” such as Sun Chips, fruit gummies, chocolate milk, baked chips, and chocolate granola bars. None of these seem like optimal choices to me. Just because something isn’t completely unhealthy doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. Replacing regular chips with baked chips may provide children with less fat but it’s not actually providing them with more nutrients.
Why do we even bother having a nutrition policy if we’re not going to follow it? We’re not teaching students to make healthy choices. We’re definitely not making the “healthy choice the easy choice” as the slogan goes. It seems to me that the only things we’re teaching students is that it’s not necessary to follow through and enforce policies and that baked chips are nutritious.