Last week, The Globe and Mail ran an interesting series on school lunch (I was interviewed for it—check me out going on about the evils of marketing to children here). All in all, it presented a rather bleak portrait of Canadian (high) school lunch: cafeteria meals analyzed from one school were high in fat, grease and sodium, at another teens were teased if they brought homemade, non-packaged food, and at schools that had reformed their food service, kids were rejecting the healthy options.
The main ray of hope was the suggestion that if we start talking about healthy food at a much younger age (elementary school), parents and educators are more likely to have some influence on children’s eating.
I get that it’s tougher to convince teenagers to make healthy choices when they are working very hard to distinguish themselves from the adults in their lives. Not to mention they feel invincible so most aren’t worried about their health. But throwing up our collective hands and offering high school students cookies and french fries for every meal surely isn’t an option, either.
In one of the Globe articles, Andrea Maldonado, who coordinates an after-school food program at The Stop, argued that getting kids involved in growing and cooking makes them more likely to eat well. But the benefits of hands-on learning is definitely not limited to younger children. I’ve written here and here about the potential for older kids to get engaged with healthy food through growing and cooking. And witness the success of FoodShare’s Good Food Cafe —where students have an opportunity to help define the healthy menu and veto foods they don’t like.
I also think it’s a mistake for schools and parents to focus solely on the health benefits of good food. Food sits at the intersection of so many important things we all deal with on a daily basis—health, yes, but also the environment, community (what better way to connect with others than over a great meal?) and social justice. These are issues that older kids can really (groan) sink their teeth into. They may not reject daily hamburgers for their own waistline or heart health, but they might be interested in the impact of meat production on the environment and start to see the links between their own food choices and larger issues. Think of it as food education that doesn’t stop at the cafeteria door.