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Thursday, 20 March 2008

School meals (Σχολικά γεύματα)

Yesterday I saw something absolutely revolting. It's a strong opinion, and probably most people who witnessed this event wouldn't have found it remarkable enough to comment on. Maybe they're comfortable with it, and accept it as a part of normal daily life, so they're willing to take it for granted. Maybe I'm just over-sensitive when I see an overweight child holding a packet of crisps at 8.10am running around hyperactively in the playground; why should I care what that primary school child was eating, anyway, since it's not my child. Then, after I dropped off my son, the school bus pulled in. Off hopped about 25 children; a couple were carrying shop-bought puff-pastry butter-laden cheese pies, and I wondered if this is what they eat on an everyday basis for breakfast. Is it really normal to buy breakfast from a mini-market when you live in a rural village surrounded by olive groves and orange orchards where sheep are seen grazing in the fields? Was there really no time for the children to have a warmed up glass of milk in the morning before they left the house for school? What happened to the Mediterranean diet in that village?

This sight prompted me to write (for the second time around) about school meals - the debate rages: ban junk food, remove vending machines from schools, provide school meals free of charge, incorporate a breakfast program, give away free milk; the arguments raised seem infinite. The greatest problem, it seems, is that the parents need to be educated about how to feed their children in a healthy way, and that's what can't be solved easily.

You can ban junk food from being sold in school canteens and vending machines, but kids will still bring it in their school bags; you can provide free food for children, but it'll probably be cheap to produce, therefore, it will be low quality (ie, junk food); schools can provide breakfast for their students, which supports the view that parents don't need to be responsible for doing this themselves; the government can give away free milk, but not all children will drink it anyway, and in these politically correct times, who's going to force children to do something they don't want to do?

In a New Zealand study: "Only one in 10 school lunch boxes contains food that meets nutritional guidelines for children, new research has found. And bad news for parents who do make the effort to provide healthy food is that the study found 80 per cent of the food thrown into school rubbish bins is the sandwiches, fruit and yoghurt children should be eating."

In an Australian study: "68% of children had fruit in their lunchboxes, however, over 90% of children had energy-dense, micronutrient-poor snacks ('junk food')."

In Britain, people are willing to treat obesity in children as an issue of governmental concern. In Greece at this time when the state cannot subdue the social unrest it is facing, it can't take on the responsibility of ensuring children are fed properly; parents need to be reminded of their duty to raise their children in a healthy way. The only solution is for children to be taught to eat in a healthy way from their home environment. It's quite shocking, when you drop off your children at school, to see a fat child eating chips when the bell hasn't even rung for the first class of the day; it's just as gross to see another (overweight) child eating bought breakfast. How did these primary school children get access to this junk food? Their caregivers/parents must have bought it for them.

Some all-day schools in Greece offer a morning snack and a cooked meal (free of charge) for the children at lunchtime. This is often the case in large urban centres where mothers are more likely to work. Judging from my sister's experience of such a school, the food offered is typical Greek cuisine, freshly cooked and healthy: yemista, fakes, stewed peas in tomato sauce, oven-cooked fish with potatoes. The teachers tick a box next to the child's name indicating how much of the meal the child ate. This is a really good idea in the case of let's say, 'unpopular' food: did a fussy child at least try it, or did it simply refuse to eat it? That's the good thing about these meals: if they don't want to eat what is offered, there is nothing else - take it or leave it, the best way to start learning good eating habits. There shouldn't be any substitute for fussy children.

Here in Crete, only private schools offer a cooked meal for pupils. Most children will go home to a freshly cooked meal for lunch. I defy anyone who comes to Hania to walk along any road at about 2pm, and not be overpowered by the Mediterranean aromas exuding from nearly every kitchen. We usually send our kids to school with a morning snack; if they attend an all-day program (like my daughter), we have to prepare a lunch for them. So it's our fault if the food we provide for our children is healthy or not. One good thing about my own children's schools is that no food is provided. There is no school canteen, either. Therefore, whatever they bring to school with them rests solely on the parents. A refrigerator and microwave (in the primary school) or conventional oven (in the kindergarten) are available, which means that parents don't need to worry about their children's meals going off, or that they will eat them cold. Another spin-off effect of not having access to canteen food is that children do not get teased about bringing a packed lunch to school - if they didn't bring one, there'd be no other food until they left the school grounds. The introductory welcome message to the parents actually stipulated this: "φροντίσετε για το φαγητό των παιδιών σας", which basically means "you have the responsibility to provide food for your child".

I'd love to peek into other children's lunch boxes, but that's difficult; it would be like prying. But I really am curious to see what other people are feeding their children. Are they making a conscious effort to provide them with healthy food? Or do they make ham-and-cheese rolls for them on a daily basis, without a thought as to the cholesterol that they pack into a lunch box on a daily basis or the wrong message being instilled in children about what constitutes a healthy lunch or snack?

Christine had a piece of home-made plain cake for her morning break, since I had a fresh one made; otherwise she'd have a banana or apple - there really is no need for a pre-schooler to eat any more, since she had also had a decent cereal breakfast two hours earlier. Her lunch goes into a metal one-layer tiffin tin, because the school has a conventional oven to heat it up, and she eats straight out of it with her own spoon (forks are not allowed, as they could be turned into dangerous weapons, and the children bring their own towel, which I wash once a week). I usually fill her tiffin tin with the previous day's leftover lunch, which consisted of pasta cooked with soya mince, which of course I passed off as spag bog to everyone, since I cook it in the same way, and it looks very very similar!

Aristotle doesn't have all-day school; he finishes school at 12.30. While Christine is eating from her tiffin tin, Aristotle is having a midday snack in a bento-style lunch box which I picked up from my last visit to New Zealand from a 1-euro shop, known there as the 2-(NZ)-dollar shops. Bento boxes suit his personality; he likes mathematics, he is intrigued by symmetry. He gets a thrill from seeing a tidy box filled with different colours, all fitting neatly intot he compartments. Today, his contains a mandarin from our own tree in the village, a leftover cheese-and-spinach pasty from last night's evening meal and four paximadia made into dakos. After having his bento lunch, he does his school homework, and then we have the main meal of the day altogether when Dad comes home after work, and Christine come home from school, some time beteen 3-3:30pm. This is why I don't give him his main meal earlier; it just wouldn't make sense if we didn't eat the family meal as a family.

And with so much talk of home-made school lunches, take a look at what some people are happy to stuff into their children's plastic lunch boxes:
  • lunchinabox: beautifully presented, but it seems too much for the pre-schooler as the photo claims it is for; as for the bits of food that are cut away to make it appealing, I would find it a hassle turning it into another meal, but at least she does have some ideas about how to turn it into something edible. What about this high-fat carbohydrate-packed lunch? Once again, too much food, with the aim of leaving no empty space in the bento lunchbox for aesthetic reasons.
  • veganlunchbox: another attempt to present food aesthetically and pack as much as one can in a well-ordered bento, but this mother readily admits that it's been more for her pleasure rather than her son's.
KidsHealth presents some very basic but important guidelines to encourage parents and children about what to keep in mind, whether they eat a packed or bought lunch at school, whereas Nora, a school dinner lady who worked with Jamie Oliver, the famous English chef that campaigned against junk food and low-quality school meals in British schools, gives some really good ideas about how to keep food in schools healthy and presentable.

To sum up, it depends on the home environment as to what attitude a child develops concerning food. Anything can be eaten as long as it's in moderation, but good eating habits always start from the home.

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