Sunday, 20 July 2014


'School canteen drenched
with golden sunlight 3'
by Edmund Yeo
under a CC license
Balanced nutrition is a challenge in most places in the world. Even where food is plenty. School meals and school food, in general, is an important factor for raising a healthy new generation. This applies independent of the actual socioeconomic environment, i.e., irrespective of whether children come from families with limited access to food or have family backgrounds lacking healthy standards in nutrition. Thus, the food supply system in schools (dictated by any "Food@School" policies) needs to aim towards two objectives:
  • Offer affordable food providing a wide set of nutrients, at a reasonably sufficient quantity in a balanced fashion, and
  • Train children into becoming responsible food consumers, actively seeking for nutrition balance and healthy choices.
As you may be guessing, those are not easy objectives for a variety of reasons, including - in no particular order:
  • Elevated costs in providing free or subsidised food
  • Limited know-how and/or resources needed to design, promote, implement (and enforce?) healthy school lunches
  • Limited know-how and/or resources to support healthy food choices through education
  • Low(er) priority at the policy agenda
  • Insufficient or unclear regulatory framework
  • (Possibly) limited continuity and support of such schemes at the home environment
  • Low acceptance by the children of the options offered to them (consumer perception concerns do not only apply in adults!)
Luckily, not all the reasons above apply in all cases. But even having a single of those being applicable can have a detrimental effect in the outcome of any Food@School policies. The good thing is that by addressing any single one of those, the situation in the others is likely to improve - a kind of positive spill-over effect!

Mother Jones (amongst others) has recently featured an inspiring article on Jessica Shelly, the director of food services for Cincinnati's public schools. She, not only managed to meet regulatory guidelines for the formulation of school lunches (such as those dictating the use of whole grains) at a very low cost per meal but effectively altered children's attitude towards healthy food employing simple things such as:
  • allowing kids to tailor their meal (salad bar)
  • seeking for new recipes that would be part of a healthy and balanced diet but also appeal to kids
  • listen to what the kids have to say on the food they consumed through a kind of customer satisfaction programme (all kids can do that and some have been doing it very, very successfully!)
  • encourage teachers to join kids while eating, thus using them to set an example of food choices
  • changing the name of dishes to make them more marketable
I'm sure that one could also add several more bullet points on the list, such as:
  • Involve kids in designing meals or individual food products
  • Enhance food science and nutrition training throughout school
  • Take advantage of the culture-food links
  • Use special events, campaigns, competitions, etc. to keep kids engaged on food and nutrition aspects
  • Try to engage the kids' families on balanced nutrition issues
Clearly, not all such changes would be feasible in every school or region. In fact, many schools do not have restaurants but rather canteens - and, even canteens may be a luxury for some places. But Jessica Shelly's moves can be adapted as needed and then adopted in most places, even in a slow and incremental pace.

I'm positive that they will deliver promising results!

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