health articles

Nutrition In Schools Today

By Sudha Hamilton

Published in Choosing A School For Your Child

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“Pie ‘n sauce please missus, an a can of coke too!”

“Can I get a cream bun? Cheers!”

You probably wont be hearing these common tuck shop refrains from yesteryear quite as often in today’s secondary school canteens, as there has been a revolution taking place on the menu. With the release last year of the NSW Healthy Schools Canteen Strategy by a coterie of concerned organisations, including the NSW Department’s of Health, and of Education and Training, there is now a nutritional line in the sand been drawn between competing aims. Some of these aims have included fund raising activities involving sponsorships from fast food businesses operating in schools, along with the commercial realities of running a profitable school canteen and of course adequately feeding the students for maximum learning output. Finding a balance between these has not been easy, and as is often the case in our modern communities, our concern with the cost of things outweighs the perceived value of providing the best and we end up with compromises that in this instance have led to a proliferation of unhealthy food in our schools.

Takeaway food in this country has a long tradition of being nutritionally very poor and it’s manufacture and retailing is built upon low margins and the use of bulk ingredients that most often do not take fat and fibre content into concern. The proliferation of pastry encased foods, deep fried foods, sugary carbonated drinks that are mass produced in huge factory vats and our general acceptance of this as standard has maintained this status quo. That takeaway food operators have traditionally been new migrants to this country, with the primary concern of financial survival for their families, has not augured well for a nutritionally excellent takeaway menu. Now with the advent of large chains of franchised fast food outlets, ultimately run by big companies, the bottom line is always profitability.

So our laisse fare attitude to what has been served up in our school canteens, at the footy, and in our shopping centres has led us to this dramatic increase in the obesity rates of Australian children and Australians in general.

“Kids they can eat anything, they’re always running around and burning it off!”

But are they? In our move as a society to the ‘clever country’ we may have become the ‘fat clever country.’ Falling levels of after school sports participation, increased time spent in sedentary pursuits like computer games, digital TV and the internet, and parental paranoia about their children’s safety on the streets have all contributed to a less active population of Australian children. In short these kids can no longer afford the luxury of a high fat and high carbohydrate diet without the consequences of childhood obesity. Are we going to be able to turn back the clock and encourage our children en masse to surf life saving clubs, football teams and little athletics? Probably not as the heroes and heroines that inhabit our movie screens today are often drawn from computer games and are defined by their smarts and willingness to beat the system. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and the characters from the Matrix all have a virtual power that comes from the infinite nature of the cyber world and not from the glories of the sporting field. Today’s badges of honour are mostly high tech gadgets, the I Pod, digital camera, mobile phone and the like and are a long way from the shiny red bike. “Man I am going places, inside my head!”

Is our children’s diet just a reflection of what we as parent’s eat?

All these pizzas, burgers and fried chicken, are we all eating far more of them than say twenty years ago? Of course we are and their availability shows no sign of diminishing.

In this ‘time poor,’ technologically driven age, where we are working longer hours for more money than ever before, it is cheaper and quite possibly more time efficient to dial up that delivery, but it is not nutritionally wise. High fat content, low fibre and predominantly made with processed nutritionally poor ingredients, these are the common fast food denominators. Our obsession as a modern community with time saving options and technological short cuts have led us a long way from good eating habits and will we heed the warning bells in time?

The Fresh Tastes @ School NSW Healthy School Canteen campaign may be the first serious initiative to put the nutritional health of our children at the top of our priorities list. With contributions from nutritional luminaries like Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM it is a definite step in the right direction. Based around a Canteen Menu Planning Guide, which draws its principles from the Australian Dietary Guidelines for Children, the strategy places foods into three colour coded groups. The first RED, containing all our old favourites – deep fried foods; sugary drinks; chips, cream buns and the like; confectionary and ice cream are all on the rare treat proviso instructing school canteens to only sell these on two occasions per school term. The second group is classified AMBER and states ‘Select Carefully,’ as like the orange traffic light there is some decision to be made here about how healthy that pie is and whether the school canteen could source a healthier example of pie. Also keeping serves moderate and attempting to choose foods that contain reduced levels of saturated fats, salt, and sugar. Finally GREEN and the directive is to fill the menu with these good foods. Fresh fruit, salads, healthy grains in high fibre breads and cereals and healthy juices and purified waters.

Will this controlled supply ignoring demand style of economics actually work or will children whose home diets do not reflect these green attitudes simply opt out of the canteen system?  We will have to wait and see. Another option that I am personally a big fan of is to involve children creatively in the production of food and to take home economics out of the classroom and into the school canteen. As children are highly prone to the “I want it right now!” syndrome when it comes to eating food, putting the emphasis on understanding where ingredients come from and how food is made can reverse this dynamic. If feeding ourselves is not a basic pre-requisite for living I think we are missing something. For too long cooking and food technology has been way down the bottom of our list of educational values, and the natural outcome of this is poor health. Are we so interested in developing a society of specialists, that focuses only on their area of expertise, or are we still wanting to produce well rounded individuals? Who can cook and clean, no matter what sex, and who can recognise a variety of fresh produce and take creative delight in preparing a wonderful meal for friends and family. Is this not a skill that we could all benefit from having.

In the great spiritual traditions of India when a devotee first comes to the Guru’s commune he is put to work in the kitchen. For it is there that he will come to understand the workings of his own mind and the dynamics of the commune. The kitchen is our first laboratory in history and the place where chemistry and much of science originated. A true understanding of nutrition grows out of the experience of food preparation, appreciating the different properties of food as they interact with the elements. Taste, smell, touch, see and hear what happens during the process. There is much to be learnt when we relate our academic understandings back to the real world, when we can sense the beauty and flavour of delicious food and know why it is so!

©Sudha Hamilton

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