Food’s Role in Holistic Child Development

If we profess that we believe the role of schools is holistic development of the ‘whole child’, how could we possibly figure that school mealtimes were simply a chance for teachers and staff to take a breather and that what the children eat and how they eat it was ‘no concern of ours’.

In almost every country of the world, regardless of the demographic under consideration, all the evidence on child nutrition, weight, vitamin deficiencies etc. are startling and deeply worrying. These are not simple problems that these children will grow out of. They are factors that are often seen in a macro sense as a massive future burden on society. At an individual child level they represent a vast number of people who will grow up with their ability to fulfil their potential in life blighted by their poor foundation. And, there’s no real reason for it in the current age.

There are many different factors at work. In the government and ‘low cost’ private schools of India, school food is about attempting to ensure children get basic nourishment. Similar is the case for lower income family children in developed countries. In the private sector in India or UAE the issues are different. Firstly, regrettably, food becomes one of the complicated issues in busy families who are time stretched. Parents are increasingly struggling to have the time to prepare a broad, balanced and healthy diet and fall back on quicker prepared options very often. However, these are negative for children in many ways – high in the wrong fats, carbohydrates, sodium and sugar for starters. In addition, giving the children what they ask for/ want (often persuaded by rampant advertising) becomes the easier option when families are pressed for time.

We know that, especially with early bus departures from home, large numbers of children leave home for school having not eaten anything in the morning. Sometimes this is a good thing. Children who rush down food before the bus journey can be sick on the way to school. Either way, these scenarios don’t set a child up well to learn for that day. In the US research data has been universally supportive of school breakfast programmes contributing to higher academic achievement. However, I believe we cannot begin to quantify the long term benefits of school meal programmes in terms of physical wellness (and therefore mental wellness).

I fully acknowledge that food in school isn’t automatically a universally good thing for children. Every stage of a school meal plan has to be handled very carefully and effectively. First, in selecting a caterer, schools need to look for a genuine partner who will work with them to further the school’s aims and objectives through the meal plan. This is not just a simple vendor delivery contract to supply a commodity. Health and safety issues must be paramount. Next, menus and food selections need to be designed in partnership to reflect and respect cultural norms of the school community, to ensure what is provided is balanced, nutritious and healthy. I also recognise that in the private sector we have a duty to parents to provide all of this at an affordable rate.

Vast numbers of the children in our schools in UAE will go all over the world for the further studies when they’re older. We believe that if their choices were severely hampered by narrow and cloistered food tastes and choices this would be a very sad undermining of their potential. This may seem surprising to parents, but personally i’ve seen examples and know many colleagues who have also seen cases – young people who either didn’t go to the West to attend a university, or who quit and headed home, because they couldn’t tolerate the different food available. How sad is that!

There are many other factors in getting the overall partnership with a caterer right. maintaining standards is critical. Also, a continuous focus on improvement and advancement ensures that the bar is continually raised. In the US a lot of credit has to be given to campaigns involving the likes of Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver to refocus what school meals can and should be. This article from Fast Company CoExist sums this up well:

Fast Company CoExist – The Unlikely Partnership Fixing New York School Meals

This highlights a number of interesting points;

a) Combined efforts to get economies of scale – I believe this is going to be a focus area for us in future – finding like minded schools who want to offer similar benefits to their pupils and combining strengths with the vendor to enable higher quality ingredients and materials to raise service standards still further.
b) Partnership between the food supplier and the schools/ authorities to ensure that objectives go well beyond simply delivering food.
c) Exploration together of all aspects, not just the food. This includes the plates and materials used, responsible handling of waste (materials and uneaten food).
We are already working with our vendor to explore this issue. We already had concerns that we wanted to address, and a couple of parents have also raised the issue. Firstly, there are mixed views and some worries about health effects of using styrofoam. That said, we only serve warm rather than boiling hot food on the plates, so current reading of the research suggests unlikely or limited risk. Then, there’s also the scope to keep at least 250,000 items per annum of non-biodegradable Styrofoam waste out of landfill sites (along with a further quarter of a million items of plastic cutlery per annum)
So, these are issues we want to address and we are working with our partners to explore all viable options. However, this isn’t easy. Any solution has to be long term sustainable and viable, approved by the authorities and economically viable for all parties. However, we believe the potential benefits make it worthwhile to put in the work and effort.

Once we get beyond these aspects, then we come to the importance of how each child is supported and guided, according to age and needs by the teachers and caregivers at meal times. We’ve had great feedback from parents of Kindergarten children who have said that children previously disinterested in eating vegetables and fruit are now actively asking for them in the supermarket. In the Kindergarten and lower classes, it’s important that the children get support and encouragement to eat in a positive, focused way, to try foods they may not be familiar with and to eat whatever is put on their plate without wasting food.

Similar messages are reinforced, along with dining etiquette and manners with the older children. There is something special about this time in the day. The whole school community coming together to eat, all having the same food, reflecting on how the day is going, catching up and exchanging personal news and experiences. This is, in a small way, a microcosm of being a citizen in a community, and brings vital skills for the children that will be there with them for life. For me, and other staff, we find that the interactions with the children at this time are on a different level and deepen trust and affinity that pays off throughout the school day.

To conclude, I come back to where I started – the desire to provide holistic development of the ‘whole child’. I find it very difficult to contemplate being in a school where the meal times are not a fundamental integrated part of the learning experience together. I hear of too many schools where mealtimes are a ‘free for all’ with bullying, hijinx, children eating junk food brought in from home – flying in the face of everything they’re probably being taught about the perils of junk food). In those schools the staff treat this as their ‘down time’, largely leaving the children to their own devices as competitive and aggressive instincts hold sway. I have to say, many of my own school experiences as a child mirrored this. I believe today we have to aspire for something much better, much more child-centric and far more in harmony with the core messages that we convey about what is good education.

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