Slow food in schools

At my son’s school, lunch is eaten in a mad dash to recess. When we are resignedly (and with more than a touch of irritation) cleaning out his lunch box of half eaten sandwiches or barely touched pasta and browned apples, he says (pre-emptively), “But I diiiiidn’t have tiiiiiime….”

The lunchroom, frankly, isn’t conducive to eating slowly—or eating at all. It’s a gym the rest of the day—a place for running and throwing and playing. And the reality is, they don’t have a lot of time before they’re shuffled out the door.

Photograph of a typical Canadian lunch from What's for Lunch? copyright Yvonne Duivenvoorden

I was thinking about this the other day when someone asked me about what kind of research had been done on the benefits of slow food (in the broader sense rather than the Slow Food Movement) in schools. The idea of slowing down, enjoying your food, having conversations around the table, taking pleasure in the meal is about as far from the average Canadian lunchroom as Pluto from the Sun.

But there are some schools—Canadian and otherwise—working to change all that.

The benefits of Slow, of course, are manifold. Kids are less likely to overeat when they slow down; they enjoy their food more and are more likely to be receptive to talking about where it comes from, who produced it, the environmental impact of food production, etc.  Also, according to research done by the U.K. School Food Trust, when children eat their school  meal in a comfortable, relaxed environment (not pushed out the door after 10 minutes) they are more likely to return to class rested and ready to learn.

With the guidance of the School Food Trust, many schools in the U.K. are implementing changes to their canteens in order to “make the most of lunch.” They are lengthening the amount of time kids have to eat, improving the seating, putting up posters about healthy eating, creating personalized tablecloths, having special tasting days, ensuring the supervisors aren’t punative, using real cutlery and porcelain instead of plastic trays and throwaway dishes. You can read lots of case studies here.

And in France, of course (as I’ve written before), school lunch is an occasion; kids have a minimum of 30 minutes to enjoy their four-course meal (and usually another hour to play); and the lunch rooms are pleasant places to be with kid-size tables and chairs, art on the walls and an atmosphere conducive to enjoying your food. (Karen le Billon is doing a great job of chronicling the French situation here and elsewhere on her blog.)

But there are also the structural changes some schools are making to their schedules that ensure school lunch is a slower, more relaxing affair. The Play First, Eat Later schedule that some schools in Canada’s west and north (not to mention several US states) have instituted is a great example of this. Teachers report kids are less fidgety during meal times, there’s less food waste (!!) and they can concentrate better after the break.

They had me at “less food waste.” Hail to the Slow.

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