Boxing clever in school lunches


As childhood obesity grows, the contents of school lunch boxes are under greater scrutiny than ever, writes CAROL RYAN

CAST YOUR mind back to lunchtime in primary school. Opening a lunch box of egg sandwiches was social death; someone usually had a collection of untouched ham sandwiches turning green at the bottom of their schoolbag; and there was always one kid with a brilliant packed lunch who was the envy of his or her classmates – a Tayto sandwich, followed by a chocolate bar, all washed down with a bottle of Coke.

Healthy school lunches have always been a hard sell, but the days of sending a child to school with a stash of junk food may be numbered. As Irish children continue to pile on the pounds, the contents of school lunch boxes are under greater scrutiny than ever.

A recent report, Growing Up in Ireland: National Longitudinal Study of Children,found that a quarter of Irish nine year olds are now overweight or obese. Two-thirds of children who are overweight in childhood will carry that weight into early adulthood.

Aside from the obvious health issues, childhood obesity has been linked to academic underachievement and self-esteem problems.

The Department of Health and the HSE are running the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, which will measure rates of obesity in seven year olds at regular intervals to monitor how the trend is progressing.

In recent years, Irish primary schools have tried to tackle the problem by instilling good eating habits in their pupils.

The majority now have healthy eating guidelines or healthy lunch box policies. These range from a loose set of guidelines that encourage parents to pack healthier lunches for their children, to detailed lists of what is and is not permitted for lunch.

Some schools are more proactive than others in promoting healthy eating. Our Lady of Good Counsel boys’ school in Johnstown, Dún Laoghaire, has a complete ban on crisps, popcorn and fizzy drinks. Chocolate is allowed on Fridays when pupils can bring a small treat for lunch. Parents are asked to pack one piece of fruit or raw vegetable for lunch, along with a drink of milk or water.

The school has just completed Bord Bia’s Food Dudes programme – an initiative aimed at encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables – and has its own vegetable patch which sprouted a crop of pumpkins for Halloween.

Vice principal Máirín Ryan says the school decided to step in after teachers noticed some children were bringing in lunches that were little more than pure sugar.

“I am a firm believer that it is the role of the parents to watch what their child is eating, but everybody needs to be on board,” says Ryan.

“It took a while to implement the policy because a lot of the children were in the habit of having a chocolate bar, a packet of crisps and a fizzy drink and they didn’t want to give it up . . . but we don’t have very overweight children now like we used to.”

Anyone who watched Jamie Oliver’s School Dinnersseries on Channel 4 might remember the women who took great exception to being told what they could and could not feed their children.

Labelled the “Burger Mums” by the British media, they were filmed passing junk food through the school railings in defiance of Oliver’s new healthy lunch policy. As the majority of children in Ireland bring a packed lunch to school rather than eating a canteen lunch, getting parents on board is essential if a healthy lunch box policy is to work.

How do Irish parents react to rules about what is allowed in their child’s lunchbox? Are they supportive or is it consider a “nanny state” intrusion?

Most schools report that parents are positive about healthy eating policies. One Dublin teacher says that while the majority of parents are very supportive of their school’s junk food ban, others try to find ways around it.

“They might pack unhealthy versions of a healthy food like chocolate yoghurt, or the Crunch Corners with balls of chocolate crunchy goo that are so bad for you they might as well be having a Mars bar.”

Colm Harte, principal of St Teresa’s National School in Longford, has put a lot of effort into promoting healthy eating habits, but has avoided prohibiting junk food altogether.

“We don’t ban but we encourage. Sometimes by being very prescriptive, you get parents’ backs up. As part of an information pack that children get on enrolling in the school, we have suggestions for parents that we get from Bord Bia.

“We find generally that working with parents works better than directing them . . . feedback has been very positive.”

The Food Dudes nationwide healthy food campaign for primary schools is run by Bord Bia and funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Some 300,000 pupils (about 62 per cent of primary school children) have participated in the voluntary programme so far and 10 million portions of fruit and vegetables have been distributed in schools.

Over a 16-day period, the children are shown DVDs of the Food Dudes, four characters who use superpowers they get from eating healthy foods to fight the Junk Punks.

They are then given a small reward if they taste a portion of fruit and vegetables. The theory is that repeated tastings, peer modelling and a reward system will encourage children to eat healthily.

Giving out Food Dudes frisbees, pens and erasers taps into their weakness for rewards in exactly the same way as junk food companies use toys to lure children, such as in the McDonald’s Happy Meal.

The results of the programme are promising. An extended pilot study found that after it, 93 per cent of teachers reported that parents were putting more fruit in their children’s lunch boxes.

Michael Maloney of Bord Bia oversees the Food Dudes initiative and says feedback from parents and teachers has been very positive.

“We see it as a win-win programme. It is fun for the kids, it is not going to be an ongoing drain on the Exchequer. It is a one-off investment of around €33 per child,” he says.

Despite these initiatives, the increase in childhood obesity shows no sign of slowing just yet. Outside school hours, Irish children face an uphill battle to avoid weight gain.

Many are fed a diet of processed foods at home, play has become more sedentary as children opt for computer games over outdoor activities and they are relentlessly targeted by junk food advertisements.

Reversing the trend will require help from areas other than the health and education sectors.