Lunch Police: Should Educators Get Involved?
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2017 Issue
By Martha Beach
A grade two student shows up to school with dried cereal for lunch. She seems a bit lethargic, though she gobbles the cereal up. She is otherwise happy and doing well academically and socially. But she only brings dried cereal for lunch every single day. What should a teacher do in this situation?
This is what Camelia Marks faced in her grade two French-immersion class in a lower-income neighbourhood in Toronto. “I didn’t know what the situation was,” Marks says. So she called the student’s dad, told him what she had noticed, and expressed concern. “Turns out [the student] was a really picky eater and wouldn’t touch anything except dry cereal,” explains Marks. It was either she eats dry cereal at school, or nothing at all. “One day, another kid took out nine cookies! I said ‘Just have two. Pack the rest up,’” Marks says. “And I called his parents too. Turns out Mom didn’t know.”
Lunchbox policing and food bans have been a hot topic in the past couple years. There have been news reports, editorials, and blog posts written about apple bans, treat bans, teachers not allowing students to eat certain foods or sending home notes about appropriate snacks. One school in the Peel region of Ontario banned chocolate in any form because of a staff member’s reaction to the smell. A primary school in Tasmania, Australia, banned candy canes. Another primary school in Lancashire, UK, banned birthday cakes. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued rules that ban schools from offering any type of junk food for sale—even vending machines. A whole school district in Illinois took it one step further this school year and banned all food from classroom celebrations, like Valentines and birthdays.
Some may think this type of lunchbox regulation goes too far, while others think it’s well within the rights of schools and educators to tell students what they can and cannot eat. But eating something, anything, is often better than nothing at all. “The ideal [situation] is to have balanced food groups,” says Aviva Allen, family and children’s nutritionist in Toronto. “But there are so many reasons why that might not be happening.” Maybe produce prices are through the roof and the parents chose to pay the utility bill that month instead of buying spinach and broccoli. “And what about a child who is taking ADHD medications?” Allen continues. “They often cause low hunger throughout the day so the parents just send something easy, something they know their child will eat.”
It’s important to also remember that the small window of time at lunch may not represent the whole picture. “Just seeing that little snippet of them in the day is not enough to make a judgment,” Allen stresses. “There are so many factors. And maybe they ate a totally balanced breakfast then go home and eat a full, balanced dinner.”
Allen’s main concern is inadvertently causing a child to feel ashamed about something that is likely beyond their control, especially for younger students. “If a teacher starts policing their food, telling them that what they’re eating is bad, they may feel shamed. And then if the teacher sends home a note, it may shame the parent,” says Allen. Marks agrees that calling parents is not usually the best route. “I think it’s presumptuous of teachers to go head to head with parents. But I also understand that as a teacher you may witness the kids only eating junk,” she says, which is a natural cause for concern.
Allen also worries that teaching kids about what’s right and wrong in a diet at school may conflict with a family’s values or choices. “The Canada food guide [recommends eating] dairy, but maybe the family is dairy-free,” she explains. They may be lactose-intolerant or perhaps refrain from dairy products for religious reasons. “It may create confusion.”
Instead of teaching specific nutrition guidelines, Marks tries her best to focus on the importance of balance. She is adamant that her students should eat healthy food first, and then their treats. “If they want to get out their chips and Bear Claws and fruit roll up, I say ‘no way, that’s for after lunch.’” She explains those snacks are mainly salt and sugar and should be eaten after a proper lunch. “It’s like having a beer at eight o’clock in the morning—I can’t stomach it! But it’s fair to have it for dessert,” she says. Luckily, her school has a breakfast program that often has leftovers, so if a kid wants to chow down on their Oreos as a morning snack—or maybe they come to school without any snacks—she says ‘nope’ and hands them a leftover apple.
It’s a bold move, but it’s something Marks enforces and models. “There are so many times I want to pop a chocolate, but I don’t.” She usually drinks tea or water and tries not to snack too much on her favourite treat, Doritos. “I’m not against candy, I’m just for appropriate choices and creating balance,” says Marks. “I don’t want to shame them. But if they’re bragging about a Kool-Aid Jammer, I just tell them, ‘Actually, it’s all sugar.’”
In addition to the food students bring from home, they may also participate in pizza lunches. It’s a fun treat for the kids, it probably gives parents a bit of a break, and it’s a great fundraiser for the school. “Pizza lunch makes the kids happy and when there’s leftovers, it makes the staff happy,” shares Marks. Allen helped organized pizza lunches this year at her son’s school. “When I first went in there, I initially thought ‘This isn’t healthy,’” so she tried to make them more nutritious. Originally, the lunches consisted of pizza, pop or juice, and cookies. So Allen began by including carrots, “and not just for the kids who registered, they are for everybody.” She also switched cookie providers so they were allergy-safe; but they also contained better ingredients and less packaging. Then the lunch program stopped offering pop. “We kept the juice for now,” Allen admits. “It’s just two days out of the month. And this is really about teaching the kids about balance—it’s okay to have pizza once in a while and you can have a vegetable with it.”
Simply telling kids what’s healthy and what’s not doesn’t always do the trick. Experience over time and understanding where products come from are large aspects of developing healthy eating habits. Jessica Jones is a science educator at a high school in West Vancouver. She does a lot of her teaching in a lab, so no food is allowed. “We work with bacteria and fungi and dissections so it’s just too gross,” Jones says. However, in a regular classroom, students are allowed to snack, though they don’t respond well to being talked about nutrition in a lecturing fashion.
“In theory, it’s nice to talk about nutrition, but it’s very tricky,” Allen cautions. “There should definitely be food and nutrition education. I’m all for learning about how food is grown and where it comes from in nature and how it’s so great for us without shaming or judging.”
So how should you broach the topic of health and nutrition without becoming the lunchbox constable? Allen highly recommends getting down to the root of food. “Lessons about where food comes from and how it is prepped will more likely inform long-term decisions and it doesn’t involve judging them based on what they’re bringing.” Maybe a field trip to a nearby farm is an option, or perhaps a community farmer’s market. Another great way to educate students is through gardening. “We have a community garden, so we do sprout things out there,” Marks says. “It’s an ongoing learning experience.” Allen thinks this type of hands-on work is a great option. “They will remember this when they are done being picky!”
Not all schools have the luxury of planting an educational garden or travelling to a farm or fresh market, but there are alternative ways to experience food in a classroom. Students could plant and grow sprouts and veggies inside as part of a science experiment. They could also celebrate and explore culture and nationalities through food. Kids could work on geography by researching what grows where, why, and what are the weather and land conditions. They could even make butter in a jar as part of a history lesson on pioneers.
Jones finds that a good method with her older students is to ask them at the beginning of the year to reflect on their eating and sleeping habits and talk about overall health. “That’s done at every grade in the sciences,” Jones says. There are countless studies and research that dive into the relation between decreased cognitive function after ingesting high levels of sugar, fats, and salts. Jones does notice a large difference in energy levels in the block right before lunch. She often allows kids a snack at the door in the first five minutes of lab. “Otherwise they seem just so tired and distracted,” Jones says. “I’m pretty pro-snacks,” Jones says. “I don’t really believe an early breakfast and late lunch is really healthy if you want focused, productive students.” Students could track their eating habits, maybe turn the data into a graph, and correlate it to their energy levels or their academic performance.
In general, if kids’ energy levels are up, they’re doing well academically, and they seem happy and social, then trying to police their mid-day meal and snacks may be more trouble than it’s worth. Focus on balance and modelling healthy eating habits. Offer alternatives, if available. Incorporate food exploration into lessons. Look into where food comes from, how it is produced, and what its effects are on the body. Focus on positivity to help set students on a healthy road to balanced nutrition.
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.