Teachers still playing 'bad cop' to junk-filled lunchboxes

Can anti-obesity initiatives in schools prevent Ireland becoming the fattest nation in the world?

The chicken fillet roll may be one of the nation’s favourite snack foods – but at at more than 1,000 calories, it is far from a healthy food choice.

For Dublin-based primary school principal Janet Lynch, it kept appearing again and again in children’s lunch-boxes. It wasn’t alone in its glory.

"I was shocked to see girls bringing in family-sized chocolate bars and 'sharing' bags of Doritos'," says Lynch, principal of St Eithne's girls' school in Raheny.

These supersized treats, along with cans of soft drinks, were expanding her pupils’ waistlines and turning the food pyramid – designed to encourage healthy-eating – upside down.


Against this backdrop, new figures on the country’s obesity problem come as little surprise to many schoolteachers.

One in four children is overweight or obese. Unless tackled soon, Ireland is in danger of becoming the fattest nation in the world. The problem, says Minister for Health Simon Harris, is a "ticking time-bomb".

For all the siren warnings, there has been precious little sign of progress. Obesity rates have been climbing. Schools – considered a vital battleground – are working off a 12-year-old obesity action plan.

The latest blueprint announced by Minister Harris reheats many of the same lofty aims. So can we really expect anything to change if we keep doing the same thing?

There are schools which are quietly making major strides. The “Rise ‘n’ Shine” breakfast club at St Eithne’s is one of them. Established three years ago, its main aim was to provide a nutritious breakfast – yet it has delivered a host of additional, unexpected, benefits.

“It has been very worthwhile in educating the children about the importance of the social aspect of sitting down together at a table and eating a meal,” she says. “There is a lovely atmosphere each morning.”

Any concerns she had about students resisting unsweetened cereals proved unfounded: they have embraced a diet that can include wholesome staples like porridge, fresh fruit and brown bread.

While breakfast clubs funded by the Department of Education have existed in many disadvantaged schools since 2005, many are funded on an ad-hoc basis and are not set up to provide food.

Government funding cutbacks have forced some schools to seek sponsorship or fundraising to keep their clubs going.

Shelia Clark, deputy principal at Glasheen Boys' School in Cork, has been involved in the Health Promoting Schools initiative since 2000. Funding, she says, is a constant struggle.

“The boys can now choose from porridge, brown bread and fruit. But we only have enough funding to run this club on a Wednesday and on a class rotation basis,” says Clark.

Involving parents is a key aim. They are, for example, able to select the menu online at the start of the school term.

“Parents are delighted with the service, 85 per cent of them avail of it,” she says.

Yet, she points out, many lunchboxes that arrive outside of the school funded project still contain foods at odds with the Glasheen’s heathy eating policy.

“Cream doughnuts seem to be the favourite,” she adds.

Many teachers are trying to implement a zero tolerance policy when it comes to the lunch box. But playing bad cop to the junk-filled lunchbox is as far as teachers can go.

“We can only advise [parents]. When the children bring in foods that are unhealthy we refer them back to the food pyramid but we can’t ban them,” says Clark.

Despite healthy eating initiatives and active lifestyles, she has seen the weight of the student population increase over the years. She feels the solution “starts at the shopping trolley” not in the school lunch box.

Janet Lynch agrees there are limitation to what a school-based initiative can achieve.

“I think parents do their best and they are the primary educators,” she says,. “ I don’t think schools can fix everything and nor should we be expected to.”

School-based initiatives recognise this and increasingly seek to target parents.

The “food dudes” programme, which rolled out nationally in 2007, aimed to encourage children to eat more fruit and vegetables at home and school via repeated tasting and rewards.

Research commissioned by “food dudes” indicates that some 87 per cent of parents reported that their children had asked them to buy more fruit and vegetables as a result of the programme.

“The programme was a big imposition on schools – both logistically and timewise. But it exposed many children to fruit and vegetables they weren’t familiar with,” says Clark.

Some schools are going further and promoting healthy activities beyond the staple breakfast, lunch and dinner. Glasheen, for instance, has its own school garden.

“They grow potatoes, herbs, beetroot. At the end of the year we use the produce to host an end-of-year barbecue,” she says.

They also incorporate a health promoting activity into each term such as “smoothie day”, among others.

Most experts increasingly agree that if schools are to have an impact in tackling the obesity crisis, there needs to be much more than just a “whole school” approach; it needs to embrace the wider community.

The Government’s latest plan involves additional steps such as a code of practice for food advertisements, calorie posting legislation and food reformulation targets. All will be vital in a longer-term battle of the bulge.

If individual schools have learned anything, it is that they are not equipped to shoulder the weight of the obesity issue alone.

Tips for a healthy school lunch

1. Include a wide variety of foods – starchy foods, protein, dairy, and fruit and vegetables

2. Try to offer different foods every day – no one wants to be eating a ham sandwich five days a week!

3. Vary the types of bread, eg pitta bread, bagels, wholemeal rolls – keep a stock in the freezer

4. Cook extra rice/pasta in the evening – these can make interesting salads

5. Home-made soup (in a Thermos flask) is great for cold days, while salads are light and refreshing for warmer weather. Both are packed with essential vitamins and minerals

6. Fluids are important for children – up to six cups of fluid should be encouraged daily. Milk and water are the best options.

Further advice is available from www.safefood.eu or www.fooddudes.ie

Case study: Slow food movement gathers pace in schools

When Darina Allen first saw children unable to identify basic fruit and vegetables on Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution documentary, she thought it was staged.

“I genuinely thought it was a set-up,” she says.

It wasn’t until she witnessed the same confusion in school-based workshops first-hand that the scale of the decline in food literacy hit home.

“People seem to know more about celebrities than they do about food,” she says.

Allen feels it is time for action and firmly believes that “food education should be embedded into our national curriculum-starting from the early years”.

In 2005 she set up the slow food education programme.

“It’s one of the projects that I’m really proud of: everything about it is educational.”

The project works with nine primary schools in Cork and has a long waiting list of others looking to join.

In order to be involved, the schools must have an edible school garden project and take part in food-centred and entrepreneurial activities such as raising chicks and selling eggs.

The learning starts long before they enter Ballymaloe Cookery School. The school garden is key to what Darina wants the students to learn.

“If you grow something yourself and have to wait for it, then you start to look at food differently,” she says.

The students who arrive at Ballymaloe and are divided into two groups: “farmers” and “chefs”.

The young farmers are taken around the grounds see the foods that are in season and how they are grown.

“They will pick carrots straight from the earth and eat them – they taste things they normally wouldn’t. They forage for nuts and berries. And they love it,” says Allen.

Meanwhile the young chefs are busy in the kitchen, working with professionals who guide them through every aspect of creating a meal from slow food produce.

Everything is made from scratch and the children make everything – they even lay the table.

The young chefs also practise their composting skills, making sure all scraps go to the “hen’s bucket”.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. At the end of the day, the entire class sits together for a well-earned, self-cooked meal.

“My favourite part was eating because we all sat together and got to eat each other’s food. It tasted better because I made it,” says Saoire, a sixth class graduate. “We even had edible flowers!”

Allen hopes to extend the project by developing a mobile kitchen unit for schools and says a national database would help those who are interested in educating our people about food to work together.

A more holistic approach to food education and the skills involved would create a more conscientious consumer and responsible shopper. “Skills are freedom,” she says.