Food and Nutrition, Mental Health & Well-being

Where’s the Beef? Not in the School Caf!

Where’s the Beef? Not in the School Caf!

By Lisa Tran

Bobby Smith is spoiled for choice at lunch time. He can choose from Welsh rarebit, Coq au Vin, or steamed Mussels. If you think that Bobby is dining at a high class bistro you would be mistaken. Bobby is not a real person but if he was, he would be eating lunch in his school cafeteria.

There are a few schools in Canada that run an alternative cafeter ia like the one in Bobby’s school. These eateries deliver unique healthy meal options while dropping the sodium and saturated fats from the menu.

In the heart of Stratford, Ontario, lies Stratford Northwest Secondary School, home to the Screaming Avocado Café, a student-run alternative cafeteria. In the past the Screaming Avocado Café has featured on its menu: rabbit in red wine with squid pasta, chicken wings seasoned with Chinese five spice powder, and chipotle BBQ chicken. Every dish is served with a side salad and the entire meal costs only $3. The Screaming Avocado Café is run by students taking the school’s culinary arts course. The food served at lunch is prepared by the students as part of the day’s class.

Similarly, in the “belly” of the town of Fergus, Ontario, the Centre Wellington District High School has a culinary arts program nicknamed “The Food School.” The program is founded on a curriculum specially developed by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Here, the students prepare fine dishes that they serve to school functions and community events. Currently, plans are underway to open Café La Ruche, an alternative eatery in the school that will offer a daily menu for students, teachers, and community members prepared by the students of The Food School.

Surprisingly, an unusual menu does not deter students; as many as 200 meals are sold daily in the Stratford school’s second cafeteria. Hungry students flock to the Screaming Avocado for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the nutritious food. There may not be a frumpy lunch lady spooning slop onto a tray in the main cafeteria, but the nutritional value of the gravy slathered fries or greasy cheese pizza may be the same as in the slop. Secondly, and likely more profoundly, students now have greater choice.

Maria Fernanda Nunez, a graduate student and researcher at the University of Toronto’s Nutritional Sciences Department suggests that when schools present students with opportunities to make healthy food choices instead of drawing hypothetical scenarios where they can make choices, the students are taking responsibility and ownership of the food they eat. Nunez says this is “important in maintaining good dietary habits.”

Healthy eating should be a concern for educators because 18% of Canadian children and adolescents are overweight (1.1 million) and 8% of them are obese (half million) according to Statistics Canada. Obesity is defined as having a BMI (body mass index) of greater than 30kg/m2. Surprisingly, identifying obesity may be the most difficult step in treating it and it is not because patients are in denial. Dr. Glenn Berall, Chief of Paediatrics at North York General Hospital and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Department of Paediatrics, finds that parents can only identify obesity in their children 60% of the time. This raises two alarming issues; not only do the health of these children go unrecognized 40% of the time, but also the identification of obesity is more difficult because our perceptions change as the number of obese persons increase.

The good news is that obesity can be treated, even cases linked to genetic conditions, such as Prater Willi Syndrome that may cause over-eating in childhood and obesity in adolescence. Dr. Berall diagnoses and treats childhood and adolescent obesity at his clinic. At a recent lecture for the Canadian Obesity Network, Dr. Berall explained that a dietary management system, appetite regulation, reduction in sedentary activity, and environmental management are keys to fighting obesity in youth.

Obese and overweight children are gorging for one reason or another. Perhaps their parents are also overweight and family meals are prepared with poor food choices. Or there may be different cultural perceptions of what is an ideal or healthy weight. Unhealthy eating habits may also be a result of convenience. Parents may have too hectic a schedule to provide nutritious meals and rely on fast food at home and for school lunches.


Teachers cannot change what students consume outside the classroom, but at the same time parents and doctors should not be the only ones bearing the burden of overweight children. Educators can be included in the fight against obesity too. If children spend approximately six hours a day in school, a quarter of their day, and consume one-third of their calories while there, teachers ought to ensure that the classroom setting makes up at least a quarter of a child’s environmental management.

When we consider that schools teach healthy eating from grade one (as they do in Ontario), but there are millions of overweight and obese Canadian children, we need to wonder if these students are lacking essential nutrients in their education. When examining the Ontario elementary health and physical education curriculum for example, the specific healthy eating expectations by grade level are clearly spelled out.

By Grade One, students are expected to identify food groups while teachers can suggest healthy snacks they can make or bring to a bake sale, such as whole grain muffins or zucchini bread. In Grade Two, students need to identify a healthy, balanced diet and apply decision-making skills to create menus for healthy meals. If we jump to Grade Five, students are expected to explain the purpose and function of calories and major food nutrients in addition to identifying critical content on food labels. Grade Six students are expected to describe the benefits of healthy eating for active living by the year’s end. In Grade Seven, students examine the effects of healthy eating and the factors affecting healthy body weight. In the final year of elementary school, Grade Eight students are asked to adopt personal food plans based on nutritional needs and personal goals to improve or maintain their eating practices.
Is there some ambiguity as to the purposes of healthy eating in these health education curriculum goals? Healthy eating should not be defined as an activity or a dietary choice. Perhaps healthy eating habits need to be juxtaposed with good health.

Teachers can promote healthy eating to their students in a number of ways. First and foremost, they can explain that nutrition is pivotal in students’ lives so that they can begin to appreciate its importance and take more control of their dietary habits. Students also need to know about the relationship between good nutrition and health. For example, Nunez says, “a diet high in fat contributes to heart disease; a diet high in sugar and starchy foods is linked to diabetes; high calcium and vitamin D intakes are important for developing strong bones and preventing osteoporosis later in life.” Nunez also adds that “students should learn about the relationship between individual nutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals, fibre) and health.”

Students can put into practice what they learn about nutrition by taking responsibility for their food choices. They can begin by helping to prepare meals in the family kitchen or in their culinary arts class. Or there can be healthier lunch options at their schools. Understandably, not all schools can implement a culinary arts program to start up their own little bistro. But schools with traditional cafeterias can affect a health conscious movement by updating their existing menus to provide students with a variety of appealing dishes. The menus need not be exotic or feature unusual meals, but they must provide students different choices on a daily basis. For example, Valley Park Middle School in Toronto offers students a chicken breast wrap and salad for only $3. This simple lunch can serve teachers and educators other ideas for similar healthy and delicious cafeteria items that will not require a culinary team to prepare.

Schools need to be involved in fighting childhood obesity because they often become the gateway for improving the diet of students who do not have the resources at home. This can come in the form of providing free meals to students, creating a new, diverse cafeteria menu, or simply teaching them about nutrition. School boards can update their curriculum to promote healthy eating as a continuous lifestyle. Teachers can specifically involve parents by asking them to provide information on traditional ethnic meals and add them to the examples of healthy meal options for students.

On a wider scale, schools can provide and/or improve the food available to students by banning vending machines or eliminating the sale of carbonated drinks. Schools can also implement or improve alternative, low-cost or subsidized cafeterias. If the school boards, local or provincial governments cannot cover the full cost of a school-nutrition program, schools can involve parents, the local community, and other nutrition advocates such as local chefs and celebrities to endorse the initiative. Schools can also involve students by starting a community garden that the students will maintain where the produce grown can be used in the school cafeteria.

Finally, it should come as no surprise that there are countless reports demonstrating the unequivocal link between nutrition and school performance. Research shows that standardized test scores and the rate of absences and tardiness can be affected when students receive proper, nutritious meals. As well, observational research indicates that fruits and vegetables are positively correlated with academic performance whereas diets high in “empty-calorie” foods (high in sugar and fat) are detrimental.

Understandably, there are many obstacles teachers, schools, and administrators will face in fighting childhood obesity, in teaching nutrition, and in implementing changes in school cafeterias. These pale in comparison to the struggles that overweight and obese Canadian children endure on a daily basis. These children will continue to experience difficulties later in life if we do not take action on their behalf today.