Tag Archives: school feeding

A gaping hole in our social system: school meals

School garden harvest October 2011

The Globe and Mail is doing a week-long series on school lunch and started off on Saturday with what I can only read as a call for a national nutrition program for school-aged kids. The reporter, Jessica Leeder, quotes a school nutrition expert saying: “It’s… a gaping hole in our social system.”

Canada, she writes, is a “blank slate” on school feeding despite the fact that:

“New research has linked meal programs to better grades, motivation, likelihood of graduation and decreases in absenteeism; providing healthy food would help counter rising rates of obesity and disease. And with a global food crisis looming, food security experts see an even loftier potential in school meals: to raise student awareness about food production and increase revenue for local producers.”

Canadians have long thought of themselves as a community-minded nation, mostly because of our much-vaunted (and discussed) health care system, but the lack of a school meal program is without a doubt a major gash in this social safety net.

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What’s for lunch in Peru?

In my research for What’s for Lunch? I read about many incidents of food poisoning in school lunch—including lizards and snakes found in the meal in India, and contaminated peanut butter in American lunches.

Last week, there was terrible news out of Peru that three children in an Andean village died and nearly 100 others were poisoned when their school lunch of rice and fish was contaminated with rat poison. Apparently, the container used to prepare the food had been previously used for mixing up a rodent-killing cocktail.

It’s a dreadful story and like other stories about food poisoning will make parents and children fearful about eating school lunch. (What it should really do is make governments, school food suppliers and regulators think carefully about what they are serving children.)

But I was interested to learn that a meal was being offered at all. Most Peruvian children aren’t given a hot lunch in their schools, despite the fact that there is a great deal of both poverty and malnutrition in the country. There is at least one government program offering a breakfast for school-agers of prepackaged biscuits and a fortified “milk-like beverage”—a supplement that apparently improves both school performance and attendance. There are also other, more piecemeal projects run by charitable organizations. But most children  go home and eat a late afternoon meal with their family.

The lack of a school meal, I learned in my research, is mostly economic and political (there isn’t the money or the will), but also the challenges of universal feeding in a mountainous country and a response to a very specific cultural milieu.

I heard a lot about the link between food and culture when I was in touch with people at a fascinating Peruvian organization called PRATEC. Champions of indigenous Peruvian culture, PRATEC works with Andean communities to ensure that their history, language and traditions (of which food and agriculture is a huge part) are integrated into the school system (among other places).

For this organization, it’s all about altering the focus away from strictly “Western knowledge”  toward valuing local knowledge. So children learn about traditional agricultural techniques and seed saving, they learn Andean songs, stories and recipes, they talk to their elders to ensure their culture is passed on—instead of passed over.

The “milk-like beverage” and fortified biscuits of the school breakfast program, for instance, while possibly improving attendance, is hardly the kind of breakfast Andean people have been serving their children for thousands of years. And  if families were asked, they would no doubt tell a quite different story about their children’s nutritional needs—rooted in their experience, traditions, lifestyle and connection to what grows on their land.

These highly packaged, processed offerings may make sense in emergency situations, but PRATEC and others would no doubt argue that they’re not appropriate for children—Andean or otherwise— over the long term.

PRATEC’s story (and that of the Peruvian school lunch tragedy) is a reminder that school lunch is about so much more than just filling bellies. It can promote or deny a community’s culture, it can convey to kids that they matter—or that they don’t.

(I’ll be back with more on this when I look at the Home Grown School Feeding project in Ghana soon.)

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Talking about hunger with kids

Last week I wrote about the famine in East Africa. But how do we make sense of such catastrophic events with children? How do you explain to your kids—in a classroom or at home—that we have enough food to feed everyone in the world but five million children die of hunger in the developing world every year?

It’s not easy. When my kids’ school hosted a hunger banquet two years ago, we all (parents and teachers) struggled not to feel hopeless or powerless, to provide context and also to go farther in our analysis of solutions than simply “you need to donate to international food agencies” or “donate to the local food bank.” While that might make sense in the short term, much larger and more systemic changes are necessary if we are really going to challenge hunger in our lifetimes.

For some ideas about how to talk about these issues, check out the WFP’s recently revamped website with its excellent resources and country profiles aimed at students and teachers. It’s also got resource links, examples of schools taking action on hunger issues, and classroom activities such as a math exercise in which kids in Grades 4-6 learn about what it’s like to live on less than $2 per day.

I’m also continually adding to my Resource page aimed at teachers and parents interested in the food system, including issues of  hunger, malnutrition and food justice. Check it out here.

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Famine in the Horn of Africa

Donate to WFP at http://www.wfp.org

I’ve written before about the school feeding program in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, where some 300,000 people are crammed into an area intended for far, far less. Malnutrition, overcrowding, and problems with sanitation and access to potable water are common. The World Food Program provides a fortified corn-soy (CSB) porridge at the schools so kids can focus on their work (also as encouragement to attend, though only about 50% of kids in the camp go because the facilities are so inadequate).

Well, since I last wrote about it, things have been getting worse. Much worse. The most severe drought in 60 years is causing a food crisis and malnutrition. According to the WFP:

“The number of people in the Horn of Africa requiring food assistance… is expected to rise as high as 10 million in coming weeks…”

That’s an increase of about 4 million people needing help during this especially severe drought, made even more difficult because of conflict and high food prices. More and more hungry people are flooding into these camps (journalist Ben Brown calls it a “vision of hell”), and the WFP—which relies on individual donations—is looking at a serious funding shortfall.

I don’t think emergency food handouts (like fortified porridge or biscuits, or here at home food banks) are the answer to hunger in the long term, but right now thousands of children and their families could go hungry and die unless the world responds. Read more about what some are calling a famine in East Africa here and here. And please consider donating to the WFP.

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Can Twitter feed the children?

My friend, Emma, is a blogger extraordinaire over at Embrace the Chaos. She writes funny and trenchant posts about parenting almost every day of the week, and she’s never afraid to wade into tricky territory.

(She also c0-wrote a fabulous cookbook for families called Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival Strategies for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them, a book I use all the time, including this weekend for my awesome, youthful, not-at-all-picky dad’s birthday cake, pictured here.)

Last week, she wrote about how she posed a question on Twitter asking for ideas on how a Toronto school with a funding shortfall for its school feeding program could generate funds and feed the kids the rest of the year. Her post got a ton of response and the school in a low-income, mainly newcomer community got their school meals paid for.

It’s a great story and shows both the still-astonishing (to me) power of Twitter and the good will of people when faced with something unimaginable like kids in a relatively wealthy city like Toronto going hungry at school.

But from where I sit, it also shows the profound failure of the Canadian system with its lack of a properly funded school feeding program. The principal at the school with the funding shortfall no doubt had to beg for the money she did get for school feeding in the first place—asking the shaky flotilla of nonprofits, piecemeal government grants and/or school board to help support her kids get the education they are promised. Then, when the money didn’t last until the end of the year she had to rely on Twitter to feed the children.

It’s a drum I’ve beaten many times before but it still shocks me that Canada is one of the only developed nations in the entire world that fails to have a coherent national strategy to feed school kids. The U.S. has one; so does Italy and Japan; even Russia, Brazil and India feed their kids at school. At least one commenter on Emma’s blog claims parents are the people who should be feeding their schoolkids, but I believe that as a society we have a responsibility to  children and each other, and the best expression of this (in this context) is a universal school feeding program that ensures no one gets left behind.

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School lunch in Haiti

It’s been one year since the earthquake that killed 200,000 people and devastated Haiti, and the situation in the island nation continues to be difficult. Last week’s presidential election, according The Globe and Mail featured “massive irregularities,” much of the capital has yet to be rebuilt and some 3,500 Haitians have reportedly died of cholera since the fall.

With thousands of schools destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, the already-fragile education system— let alone school lunch— is still recovering.

That’s where the World Food Program comes in. Working in partnership with the Haitian national school canteen program, WFP will feed school meals to 1.1 million kids across the country this school year.

image from The World Food Program http://www.wfp.org

The meal is basic: usually rice and beans. If the school has extra money they’ll add some meat, fish or vegetables. At some schools, there are also take-home rations. It is often the only meal these kids have all day.

An innovative pilot project is also working at providing fresh milk from local dairy farmers for some schools. The benefits are two-fold: the program provides a ready market for farmers who are part of the dairy cooperative; and children at the designated schools receive two bottles of fresh, healthy local milk each week—something they’d be unlikely to enjoy otherwise. Now that’s a win-win situation.

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2011: the year in preview

There’s something about all the “Best Of…” lists that come out this time of year that I find a bit depressing. In the dead of Canadian winter, with so little sun to warm my bones, I guess I’d just rather look ahead. So here’s that fool’s errand—a  round-up of predictions for 2011 in the world of food and kids—from my home to the wider world.

My 11-year-old son’s New Year’s Resolution is to make his lunch “more”—which, considering he never makes his lunch, probably means once a week. The mornings are a frantic time in our house and we haven’t made the space for him in our routine but all that changes now that he’s taken the initiative. I hope he’ll allow me to chronicle some of his efforts here on What’s for Lunch?

The Food Channel predicts that one of the big food trends of 2011 is thousands of chefs will be joining school cafeteria crews. “This will be the year we finally get really serious about feeding our children healthier, better quality foods. We’re no longer just talking about childhood obesity, we’re doing something about it.”

According to agriculturalist/horticulturalist George Ball writing in The Wall Street Journal, 2011 will be the year of the vegetable.  Ball says kids will eat them if their parents tell them they must. (I ought to try that one….)

Epicurious suggests that Meatless Mondays will go mainstream, with numerous American school districts already embracing vegetarian offerings.

Marion Nestle writes that school food will continue to make front page news in the US as the new Child Nutrition Act is implemented—and negotiated on the ground.

This is the year Ontario schools will ban junk food from their premises. I predict lots of hand-wringing from good-food backlash types about children’s god-given right to soda, etc.

Funding for school dinners in England has been on shaky ground since the change of government last year. There are signs that this will continue despite all the excellent work the School Food Trust and others have done showing the enormous benefits of healthy food in school canteens.

In Afghanistan, where thousands of children rely on school meals (often emergency biscuits or corn-soy porridge) supplied by the World Food Program, the organization says the outlook on food security is increasingly bleak. A funding shortfall may mean the WFP has to cut its assistance down to only emergency projects. With wheat prices continuing to rise and the humanitarian situation deteriorating, need is only going to increase.

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Behind the scenes: Dadaab refugee camp

One of the “countries” profiled in my upcoming book, What’s for Lunch? is not a country at all. The Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya (near the border with Somalia), however, are home to some 300,000 displaced people, mostly Somalis fleeing violence and lawlessness in their homeland. The vast, overcrowded, under-serviced complex may not be a country, but it is a world unto itself.

Built in the early 1990s to house less than a third of the current number of refugees, Dadaab (actually 3 separate camps) lacks pretty much everything, including adequate infrastructure (proper sanitation, water, etc.). Will Storr’s harrowing story in The Independent this summer called “No Way Out: Inside the Worlds’ Largest Refugee Camp” paints a vivid picture of what this means for hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis.

For children–some of the most vulnerable people in the camps—life in Dadaab can be incredibly difficult. Education is a right but less than half of the kids attend school. For those who do, there is fortified corn-soy blend (CSB) porridge served in the cup at left. Provided by the World Food Program as part of its food for education program, this school meal is intended to increase enrollment and attendance.

In this segment of Behind the Scenes, my ongoing series about the making of the book What’s for Lunch, a WFP worker in Dadaab offers some insight into why, despite the meal, enrollment continues to hover around 50%. It is part of an email sent to me when I requested more information about the school experience. I have edited it for the sake of  brevity:

An average refugee school has an enrollment of 2,000 to 2,500. The physical structures are tin-walled classrooms that were constructed during the emergency phase [the 1990s]. The structures are in a dilapidated state and need urgent renovation. The area is arid and semi-arid region where temperatures range above 37 celsius. Learners & teachers endure high temperatures inside these classrooms. Due to space constraints, lower primary runs two shifts per day and overcrowded classrooms contribute to a high drop-out rate among students and a low completion rate. Classroom to pupil ratio is 1:103 students (whereas the UNHCR standard is 1:40). Book to pupil ratio is 1:7 and minimum standard is 1:1; desks pupil ratio is 1:6 and minimum standards is 1:3. If every child wanted to go to school, they could simply not be accommodated.

It’s important to note that the WFP’s school feeding program has increased enrollment— but the poor conditions and limited facilities mean that these efforts can only go so far.

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The price of bread

As food prices rise all over the world and the UN goes into damage control mode trying to downplay fears of a renewed food crisis, Mozambique burns. In Maputo two weeks ago, 13 people, including some children were killed in bread riots that followed a 30% spike in the cost of bread, as well as soaring costs for basics such as energy and water.

Raj Patel wrote a great piece in the Guardian exploring how the root of such protests is in the inequities of the global economy.

But in Mozambique you don’t have to go far to understand what’s at the heart of people taking to the streets about the price of food and necessities. Three quarters of the average household income goes toward food, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room when prices go up.  (The government reversed the price hike last week, announcing it will use subsidies to cover costs.)

Children are invariably the most vulnerable. ( UNICEF estimates nearly 60% of children in Mozambique live below the poverty line.) To try to take some of the pressure off, the World Food Program offers food for education programs to some 280,000 school kids. School lunches—often a fortified porridge or a simple plate of rice and beans—as well as take-home rations for girls and orphans means kids and their families have incentive to stay in school. It also means that with full bellies they’re better able to concentrate on learning.

Mozambique is considered one of Africa’s great post-conflict success stories—building peace, democracy and economic development—and the Ministry of Education and Culture is working with the WFP to take over responsibility for school meals. But it’s not hard to imagine that rising food prices, the fragility of the international food market, and the pressure this puts on federal coffers could delay its implementation.

Let’s hope the government has the foresight to see that any investment in school meals is also an investment in the country’s future.

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World Cup Fever: Viva Espana!

Welcome to the final installment in the very occasional World Cup Fever series, in which I look at how and what kids eat for school lunch in various soccer nations.

As the world now knows, Spain meets the Netherlands in the final on Sunday, so I figured I’d wrap this up with a bit of tapas.

Spaniards take their food and their bullfighting seriously—though not usually at the same time. (Photo by Ben Saul)

Only about 20% of Spanish kids eat school lunch provided at school. The rest either go home to eat or bring a packed meal (some are quite elaborate three-course meals, like gazpacho soup, green beans and a Spanish tortilla—a delicious potato omelette— followed by fruit, according to this blogger).

School meals in Spain tend to be catered by outside companies rather than made in-house.

Many schools send home lunch menus each week detailing the nutrients, vitamins and fat content in the lunches that will be served. Some schools even make suggestions to families about what they should serve for the evening meal to insure kids are getting all the nutrients they need!

Last winter, spurred by rising rates of childhood obesity, the Spanish government introduced legislation banning high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods in schools. But the proposal didn’t stop there. According to Time Magazine:

“In addition to limiting the hours during which junk food can be advertised on TV, the bill would prohibit celebrities from appearing in any ads for foods aimed at children. And, in a move that may mean the death of the Happy Meal, it would ban companies from including toys or prizes in foods targeted to children.”

It’s a gutsy move but part of what is shaping up to be an international trend.

In fact, just last month, the awesome Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gave notice of its intent  to sue McDonald’s if it didn’t stop using toys to market Happy Meals. And Santa Clara County in California recently banned fast food toys in its restaurants. Here in Canada, the province of Quebec has  a long-standing ban against junk-food ads aimed at children.

And just this morning, I read on CNN’s Eatocracy that the Interagency Working Group in the US (representing various federal agencies, including the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission) has come up with new standards limiting the kinds of foods that can be marketed to children. A report is scheduled to be tabled in Congress by the middle of this month. Hopefully, it will put an end once and for all to dubious claims like Kellog’s Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal was “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%.” Nice try. (The FTC already cracked down on that one.)

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