Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Food Students Eat

When I was in school it was my parents' responsibility to ensure I had food to eat in my lunchbox. In my early years at school that meant some Jatz biscuits and maybe a few small cubes of block cheese for recess, and a pretty sandwich for lunch (aka 100s and 1000s sandwich). My mum though felt the pressure of all the "you shouldn't give your child" information when I was in about grade 3 and decided that my pretty sandwiches had to go and be replaced with Vegemite or peanut butter ones. For several weeks I came home with an empty lunchbox but I was hungry by the end of the day because I hated both Vegemite and peanut butter and had given the sandwiches away. After admitting to my mum I wasn't eating them she decided I could have my pretty sandwiches back...and I was happy!

As for canteen food...my brothers and I were allowed one lunch order every fortnight (on pay day). We always got the hotdog. Occasionally we would have 20c to spend on something else...but that wasn't very often.

The Picky Eater

I was a very picky eater as a child. There were lots of foods I would not eat, or would only eat in specific ways, for example....an apple had to be peeled (I still will not eat apple skin), bananas had to be sliced...yes, the little things matter...and all this only if it passed my smell test - if I didn't like the smell I wouldn't eat it (a trait my daughter appears to have inherited from me). My picky eating was so bad that for several years I mainly lived on Weetbix (my mum tried a cheaper brand but I knew it within one bite - it wasn't worth her wasting the money) for breakfast and tea. I occasionally ate a sausage, sometimes potato (but only when mixed with pumpkin and served with sausages)...yes, feeding me was a skill on its own! I survived though and found that in my late teens I preferred different foods to what I had been raised on. I still don't like boiled vegetables or traditional meat and veg dishes. I prefer salads, stirfrys and spicy food. This was discovered not because I was forced to try it, but out of natural curiousity to try something new.

As a reformed picky eater, mother and teacher, I become very concerned when articles such as Chips, iced buns banned from Queensland tuckshops emerge due to changes being implemented in schols. This is not the first time the debate regarding canteen and lunch box food has hit the headlines but honestly I think it is time parents stood up to say enough is enough.

"Healthy" Eating
I feel all this started rather innocently. As a nation we have more and more children who are obese (I'm not going to argue with that) and in many cases the parents are blind to it (I have had many parents tell me how healthy the lunchbox contents is they packed...including several packets of chips and chocy frogs).

I think teaching children about making informed choices about food and drink is good. Children need to know what they should eat more of and what should not be eaten on a regular basis. What I don't agree with is banning certain foods. We need to be educating children on how to make a better choice. If we force children to follow a specific thinking of "this is good food and that is bad food" I feel we are treading on very dangerous ground. Too much of anything in excess is going to have health consequences.

Lunchbox Police
When I first began in schools I can remember watching the teacher I was assigned to ask all the children to bring in their lunch box and open it at their desk. They then took an inventory of what was good and bad. Children who had "bad" food were told so in front of their peers. It was embarrassing for the child. Now some might argue: So what? Some of those children never dared put a "bad" food in their lunchbox again. If a parent packed it they would bin it as they came into the school (yes, I saw many packets of unopened chips in the bin) because they didn't want to be "told off" in front of the class. In some cases children stopped eating anything at all. This is my concern.

I would rather a child eat something they like (and I am assuming the parent knows what the child does/doesn't like) than for that child to try to get through an entire school day without eating anything at all. And yes, this happens a lot.

A Teacher's Job?
Further to my example above I want to challenge what business teachers have "assessing" a child's lunchbox? Now that example was about 15 years ago and it had been implemented not by that specific teacher but all had been told to do it - but why?

Teachers have enough hats that we are expected to wear without any additional pay. A doctor gets paid far more for specialising in one field and yet teachers are expected to juggle multiple skills well outside of the teaching role. A teacher is not a pseudo-parent and should not be responsible for what a parents packs for their own child.

No Lunch?
If a child has no lunch - that is of concern. It is a parent's duty to ensure their own children have food for the day. Even if children pack their own food a parents should know that food has been packed. If there is no food then naturally the school will provide a sandwich - sometimes very reluctantly. At a school I worked at I watched as the main office staff member made a reception (age 5 years) burst into tears as the staff member told her off for not having any lunch and that it was a nuisance for them to go and make them something. And that attitude was not a one off. At that school I taught slightly older students and if one of them had an empty lunchbox I usually...

* First called the parents. In most cases the child had grabbed the wrong lunchbox (many families have two as they wash one at night and have the other packed at night ready for the morning) or the food was on the kitchen table having not actually made it into the lunchbox. Parents were happy to drop off the food at recess.
* Second, if I couldn't get hold of a parent, I went and made the child lunch at recess and gave them an apple. I usually kept a small supply of fruit behind my desk for emergencies such as that.

Not once would I send them to the office as I did not want them to be treated so dreadfully.

If there been a regular pattern of missed lunches (which happened once) I spoke with the school counsellor who assisted the family to receive support - this was a bigger issue than just lack of lunches. We worked however to preserve the dignity of the child first.

A Red Flag to a Bull
Banning foods from lunchboxes or canteens will only lead children to want to know why. It's like having a big red button that says "Do not push this button". Of course you want to push the button - because you're not meant to.

Banning or restricting foods is an outdated and over simplified justification for helping kids to be "healthy". Basically it is focusing on the tree in front of them rather than looking at the forest it is part of. There are many factors that lead children to be obese and diet is only one factor.

Please, let kids be kids, parents be parents and teachers be teachers. I think though I will end with this thought.

As Teachers
  • We should teach and not preach about healthy eating.
  • We need to educate and not dictate.
  • We should do this to ensure children grow up to make informed decisions instead of just doing what they've been told without understanding why.

Lunchbox clipart (c) MyCuteGraphics
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