Should teachers be allowed to influence the diet of the children in their care?
It’s a question that’s been asked just recently as a school was slammed by parents for allegedly not allowing children to eat unhealthy snacks from their lunchboxes, and offering them fruit instead.
Abbey Hulton Primary School, in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK said it was trying to promote good health and was working hard to keep children fit and healthy while at school.
Nevertheless, parents have hit the headlines in national newspapers across Britain as they accuse the school of “policing lunch boxes” and not letting “children be children”.
But four months after the Imperial College London and the World Health Organization released a study that showed how childhood and adolescent obesity rates are drastically increasing, shouldn’t the school be praised for trying to encourage pupils to make healthier choices?
With nearly 130 million participants in the study aged between five and 19, the largest number of obese children appeared in East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and high-income English-speaking countries.
Indeed, several studies have addressed the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in different Arab countries with many making the link of increased rates with significant growth in income from rich deposits of oil reserves and resulting rapid urbanisation and improved living conditions.
So what do parents in the Arab world make of schools intervening in what their children are eating between classes?
Saudi-based Amira thinks the school is interfering in something that has nothing to do with it.
She says: “Children go to school to learn, to become academic. Diet and eating habits should be taught in the home.”
America-born Mina Liccione lives in Dubai and is a new mum to twin boys. She says the school should try to educate children about nutrition in a fun way.
She says: “Along with implementing a healthier meal plan at the cafeteria and encouraging those who bring lunch to bring a healthier one, they should include nutrition lessons. When kids are told no, they want it more. When it is explained why something isn't healthy and in turn why something else is, they are more prone to respond positively.
“Kids also really enjoy cooking and preparing food. Why not implement cooking and food lessons as well? My nephews are constantly wanting to make me breakfast and take great pride in making me sandwiches and smoothies. Healthy food can be fun if approached in the right way.
“There are some schools in the USA that have gardens on campus. Students grow fruit and vegetables and then prepare meals with the food at both school and at home for their families. When you put love and effort into cultivating food, you want to eat it and share it.”
Amera Varghese is a Clinical Nutritionist at Mediclinic Welcare Hospital in Dubai.
She believes it’s only right that schools show an interest in what their students are eating. In fact, she believes it’s vital they do.
She says: “Eating habits are established in early years and eating healthily is a life skill. As children spend a good part of their day at school, I think school is the best place to practice and learn about healthy eating. Creating a healthier food environment at school is a key strategy for reducing childhood obesity and schools should come up with programmes to encourage clean eating habits.”
Encouraging children to eat sensibly will impact on more than just their appearance, says Amera.
She adds: “Eating well from a young age will ensure that the child is healthy now and in the future. Nutritious meals and snacks can also improve a child’s memory, immune system and their ability to concentrate. This also affects the children’s lifetime wellness habits. Whether or not a child is overweight or not, they still stand to benefit from healthier options.”
Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, Clinical Nutritionist at Dubai’s Mediclinic Welcare Hospital Amera Varghese has some tips for you to encourage young ones to eat better. Schools: • Provide healthy, delicious and kid-friendly menus at cafeterias. Promote the availability of healthy snack foods with whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients. • Provide healthy choices for lunches because, more than at other meals, kids have control over what they eat because they’re away from home. • Set up fruit and vegetable bars at the school canteen and offer healthy food options in vending machines. • Educate students about what types of food are healthy. This will give them confidence to make good choices • Start offering healthy, nutritious food for special days or events in school and organise healthy days at school to demonstrate the importance of healthy eating. • Put up posters around school focusing on healthy eating. • Educate children about portion control. • Get students involved in cafeteria menu planning. • Encourage the growing of food in school gardens as this can be a hands on learning opportunity that can be integrated into a wide range of areas. Parents: • Teach your child what types of food are healthy. This will give them confidence to make good choices. • Pack healthy foods in their school lunchboxes or as snacks and as party food. • Support healthy school activities. • Get your kids involved in planning meals and take them grocery shopping to have real hands on experience. • Make healthy snacks available at home and give them the freedom to choose. If you keep healthy food at hand, children will eat it as it is available. • Don’t place restrictions on food as this can increase the chance of a child developing an eating disorder. • Always praise healthy food choices and don’t criticise any unhealthy food choices they may make. • Set a strong example at home. Be a role model because kids will always try to copy the adults and this will affect the choices they make now and in the future.