There’s a crisis in health looming in the West. It’s not just those poisons in the air. It’s not only because of the couch potato culture. It’s not even in our gross overeating, per se. It’s because of a revolution in the way we bring up our kids to choose their food. And the School Meals debate is just a part of it.
School Meals the Old Way
I’ve eaten school meals now for over half a century — I used to be a teacher after I was a kid. And I’ve watched the food quality and eating patterns of school children change radically. I know that, years ago, school meals were home-cooked on site, from high-quality ingredients. Meals were always provided complete, and to a menu intended to be nutritionally sound by the standards of the day. Both in the USA and the UK, parents were determined that their kids would have a good mid-day meal, whether they were rich or poor.
And it was so.
Until money and convenience began to count more. Until children found that they had a real power to choose — including the power to choose to eat badly. And addictive, high-fat, sugar-rich, nutrient-poor food — treats, really — began slowly to dominate the average kid’s diet.
Commerce and the Bottom Line
In the UK, school meals began to be contracted out to the commercial world in the 1980s, with a price-led bottom line. On average, micro-nutrient quality took a big nose-dive. Some authorities embraced the cost cutting enthusiastically, and at least one county I know had to shut their disreputable service because it eventually got such a small take-up.
In the USA, it’s been a more creeping disease since the 1960s, led by big enterprises like General Foods. They offered to provide commercial, processed meals at a good price point and to government standards under the School Meals Initiative, and harassed school boards loved it! Worse, from the Reagan years, vending machines became commonplace and the quality of ‘real’ school meals slipped further — even ketchup became classed as a ‘vegetable’!
But there are two issues here. First, what kind of food was said to be ‘fit for purpose’ by the makers, and second, what did the kids actually eat? After all, you can lead a horse…
Nutrition and School Meals
The US Food And Drugs Administration sets standards for its people’s nutrition, as does the Department for Health in the UK. These are based on what expert opinion says is a healthy diet. Leaving aside what the experts themselves eat, you’d expect them to recommend for kids what research has told them is good for us. Or would they? They won’t set ‘impossible’ guidelines, after all. Whoever provides it, school food today is restricted by three controls: price, nutrition and acceptability.
Too high a cost would be unacceptable to parents, and there would be no point recommending meals which most children would refuse to eat. Nutrition? Notionally, the food is supposed to be complete nutrition, in case some children are poorly fed at home. Standards creep, though. They move with the fashion of the times, and the current fashion for inexpensive meals is to eat factory-prepared meals in restaurants and at home, with little actual cooking being done on site. In fact, today’s young mothers and short-order ‘chefs’ often don’t and can’t actually cook food at all! They just reheat and present it. And such food is notorious for missing some key essential nutrients. And acceptability? Well…
Choice Is Good. Right? Wrong!
Choice is king today. Children can:
refuse to eat the food offered in school,
eat only the addictive junk element of what’s available,
bring an alternative from home (could be an ideal meal or pure junk),
buy from a store on their route to school or — in some cases —
go outside the school at lunchtime to find whatever is hawked at the gates or in shops nearby. And they often have plenty of money to buy what they wish.
Younger children tend to be given less choice, so they’re more likely to get the intended nutrition. I’ve noticed, though, that in schools which allow a wide choice of menus, the actual pattern of eating can be very different to the intent of the menu planners. Kids will pick what they want from the menu, given the opportunity, and if choices are limited to sets of balanced items, they’ll just leave what they don’t like. In fact, they’ll behave just as children always have, given an open choice and no guidelines they’re prepared to accept!
So the standard of nutrition, which is itself often very questionable, is no standard at all if the children can circumvent it. The result is a range in the actual nutrition that children get in their lunchtime meal, from excellent to poor nutrition; not good, unless the child chooses well.
And that brings us to the point of this article: choice.
Do children get too much choice, with too little guidance on how to exercise it?
Do they learn — maybe by adult example — to choose what feels good at the time and succumb to addiction, whatever the consequences?
Do they get too little help in choosing wisely?
Are they influenced by clever, expensive advertising to crave and buy hugely-profitable junk foods?
I reckon it’s usually yes, yes, yes and yes. And that’s why I think school meals are just a symptom of a bleak future healthwise for our young people. Choice without informed responsibility is no choice at all.
The answer? Information and education, presented well, so that kids will enjoy learning. It’s beginning to resurge in the USA and Canada, (see the book Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children by Ann Cooper). There’s also a strong groundswell of action towards improving kids’ nutrition that has been influential for some years in the UK, aided recently by a public campaign by TV chef Jamie Oliver. In the end, though, where are the major influences? I reckon it’s:
Parents, first — as prime influence from an early age, there’s no stronger model for eating choices as long as the parents are intending to influence choice. And so it should be, unless this influence is spoiling the health of our young people. Then maybe the parents need some information and education.
Advertising, second. Maybe I’m being a little cynical, but it’s probably accurate to say that effective advertising, with older children, is more influential than their parents. It also influences their peer group’s choices, which is another major influence on each one. I’m maybe thinking about long TV hours.
I’m putting school third. Many schools try hard to show kids from a young age the consequences of a long-term poor diet. This growing influence then has to weigh against the other, powerful moderators of young behaviour.
And I reckon it’s nearly too late for a large minority of our youth, because their home example is such a strong negative dampener on the excellent campaigns now being undertaken in a lot of schools. If mom and dad, 240 pounds each and currently enjoying life and (junk) food, are hearing from their kids what sound health will mean to the home food choices, do you think they’ll support the message from school?
Not till their diabetes, arthritis and allergies get linked to their diet in their own minds, I think. And that could be a decade away, if ever.