School lunch boxes are always up for a heated debate in the media and these conversations are sometimes replicated in the school staffroom. Everyone has an opinion, some sprout their ‘own’ expertise in nutrition, while others push for nude food or a strict adherence of lunch box rules with notes sent home for failures to comply. The food environment has become increasingly difficult to navigate, especially with allergies, dichotomous public health campaigns and the influence of food industry marketing. These become intertwined in a mass media of confusing messages or just plain misinformation.
Why has policing lunch boxes become so favoured?
Health has become a highly emotive subject. The changing landscape of our food environment, food availability and access has provided our population with an abundance of variety and choice. While our food environment allows convenience, this privilege has enabled a behaviour change where our reliability on easy meals has seen a reduction in food skills. Public health campaigns often present us with black and white health messages or fear to encourage behaviour change. Historically the education system has been a means to access health information with governments focusing on children’s diets, particularly during the war time periods where there was malnourishment. Mothers became a prime audience and this is still the case today.
Lunch box policing in schools, while coming from a place of wanting the best for children’s health has received backlash from parents and the media. When there’s an assumption the eating is easy and that rigid rules will fix unhealthy eating, it negates that eating is an inner body intuitive experience. It sets children up to be less motivated to eat well and places a great amount of stress on parents doing their best to navigate a very complex food environment as well as help their child/ren establish food skills.
Public health messages and the media portray health with a focus on weight. Not only are these kinds of messages stigmatising, their focus on rising rates of overweight and obesity in childhood is not completely accurate. Since the late 1990s, these rates have been a rather stagnant trend. These statistics use the measure of BMI (body mass index or a numerical measure of size based on height and weight) that doesn’t take into account children’s health behaviours, growth periods, bone density and muscle mass, distribution of body fat, nor ethnicity.
Have we taken public health messages too far when it comes to healthy eating?
In some circumstances, yes we have. There’s an assumption that eating is easy and children just need to eat more healthy food and limit the less nutritious kind. This is not at all the fault of schools, they’re implementing practices that they believe support healthy eating but are not trained in nutrition and feeding development. There also seems to be an understanding that a healthy eating policy which is a long term whole school action or approach is also permission to audit or inspect school lunch boxes on their nutritional content. This practice is highly unethical and not endorsed by government education departments.
Scrutiny of lunch boxes based on food selection neglects to see the broader complexities of family values, social, cultural, genetic, physiological and psychological influences. Just like learning to read, write, ride a bike, tie shoelaces, eating also requires the building of neural pathways. Food is frequently associated with emotion and if we’re continually speaking about it with a positive versus negative light, this impacts children’s relationships with food.
How can schools create food cultures that nurture healthy eating?
Schools are change-makers. They provide stable, safe and engaging environments for children to learn every day, every term and every year. While food preferences are genetic, they’re also environmental so schools have an opportunity to build their capacity to increase exposure and engagement with food. A whole school approach with a long-term vision, like all other learning areas, allows for sustainable practices and time to instill the values of positive food education.
Here’s how this can be envisioned:
We need to look beyond the lunch box
Let’s look towards the school environment as well as the curriculum and how these already add value to the learning experiences about food. Schools that have a kitchen garden program are ultimately increasing access to vegetables, improving knowledge base of food and promoting the language of food. Experiences in context are extremely powerful enablers. Every food experience that’s provided adds up. Classroom celebrations can be an opportunity to add vegetables, sausage sizzles can have salads made by the children from the school garden, tuckshop menu items can be trialled with children’s input.
We need to see all children as ‘food learners’
The current Australian Curriculum allows for cross-curricular approaches to learn about food but this needs to be considered in an age-appropriate way. Think, as many sensory experiences with food education at the forefront of learning. Children do not see nutrition, they see food. Make the food they’re not familiar with or still learning to like accessible. Remove ‘eating’ as the goal, learning about food and eating are two completely different things. Leave the ‘eating’ for eating time only.
We need to respect the Division of Responsibility
This is a model of feeding that builds eating competence over time. Parents are in charge of providing food in the lunch box, children are responsible for deciding how much or whether to eat and teachers provide the time and place for children to eat. In primary schools, there’s about 30 minutes dedicated to eating time each day and this amounts to about 97 hours per year. That’s 2.5 hours of exposure to other foods per week!
We need to adopt a language that nurtures food relationships
Language that pits one food against another has to go. When talking about food, use its name. If it’s an apple, it’s an apple, not a healthy food. If it’s a chocolate bar, it’s a chocolate bar, not a ‘sometimes’ food with lots of sugar that rots our teeth. The language we use about food matters because they reflect attitudes. Attitudes towards food that reflect a discourse of good and bad can play into restriction and poorer eating habits. Food relationships that are healthy see that all foods fit in a varied diet.
Ultimately, we need to set school communities up for success. The food environment a school provides, along with a shared language enables a connection between food and community. A whole school approach that allows all stakeholders to participate in learning about food with rich and real hands-on practical experiences, and constructs a foundation of food education will lead to long term healthy eating. It takes a village to raise a child and we know this is possible because schools are actively engaged in this process already. Let’s continue to build capacity and strengthen our food learning journey in our school communities.