Fixing school lunch rooms

By Alison Rockwell on July 23, 2012
Five mornings a week, mom Hilary* prepares a balanced lunch she hopes her daughter, Taylor*, 7, will eat at school later that day; a whole wheat sandwich, yogurt and red grapes. For snack, a nut-free granola bar and apple slices. Feeling indulgent, Hilary may toss in a sugary treat. But Taylor’s lunch, packed with her favourites, will come home largely uneaten at the end of the day. When asked, her daughter will shrug and say she wasn’t hungry.

Her parents believe they know the real reason why Taylor has barely touched her lunch. They’ve heard it over and over from dozens of other parents and students at the school. It’s not what Taylor has to eat that is to blame, it’s how she eats: on the fl oor of her school gym surrounded by as many as 200 schoolmates, amidst a cacophony of yelling, punctuated by even louder whistles blown by the lunchroom supervisors to control the rowdy behaviour.

This scene, and others similar to it, greets thousands of elementary students staying for lunch in schools located within Canada’s largest school board – the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). If this case sounds particularly chaotic, the students who are part of it, and the parents who have witnessed it, can confi rm it is. As the connection between food and overall health becomes more pronounced, and as obesity rates increase – current estimates are that more than one in four children and youth in Canada are obese – school lunch programs across the country are under increased scrutiny not just for their nutritional content, but for how they are carried out.

A little respect

Cassandra Reid, a Toronto dietician and mother of three, says the experts have been clear that crowded, chaotic lunch experiences should be widely discouraged. “The American Dietetic Association has guidelines for creating an eating environment conducive to the development of social skills. This includes establishing an atmosphere for eating, providing enough time for the children to eat, providing chairs, tables and utensils that are comfortable and appropriate in size, and involving children in the meal service.”

What’s lacking in this type of overstimulated environment, says Cassandra, is “respect for meal times. Options for healthy eating increase in properly supervised environments.” In such challenging conditions, the worthy goals of monitoring, reminding and encouraging kids to eat the healthiest items in their lunch bag fi rst, take a backseat to the basics: crowd control and safety.

Healthy choices and school practices

In September 2011, Ontario joined British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec and banned the sale of pop and sugary drinks in school vending machines, cafeterias and tuck shops. Candy, energy drinks and fried foods were also banned. Ontario’s Ministry of Education affi rmed its commitment to wholesome eating environments, noting that “schools have an important role to play in helping students lead healthier lives, including teaching students the skills to make healthy choices and reinforcing those lessons through school practices.” The TDSB’s initiatives refl ect that as well. Its charitable foundation, the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, is one of the most recognized in the country. Programs such as Feeding our Future and Beyond 3:30 “help feed students, address issues of poverty, hunger and poor nutrition, and their effect on education” in communities that have been identifi ed as having the need.

At Taylor’s school, Maurice Cody P.S. in Toronto, parents who use the at-school lunch option for their children are also looking to address issues related to feeding students. Located in a midtown neigbourhood where tidy semi-detached homes sit next to million dollar re-builds, Cody, as it is called, has an active and involved parent community consisting of a mix of stay-at-home and working parents. The beginning of each school year brings with it frustrated families who discover their children will once again be eating their lunches in large groups on the floor of the gym. “Do you eat on the fl oor with your family every night?” asks Graham Leishman, co-chair of the parent student council and father of three. “While there may be cultural reasons for eating this way, a school gym fl oor with upwards of 200-plus kids has nothing to do with cultural habits.”

Graham and other parents have been working closely with the administration and the board to bring about solutions that will work within the job descriptions of teachers, lunchroom supervisors and caretakers. Parent groups, who have been involved in dozens of in-depth meetings with TDSB board members, union representatives and the school, say it’s these rules that are the biggest impediment to change. School principal Shona Farrelly says the preferred option of children eating at desks in their classrooms is “not possible,” for a number of reasons:
• TDSB lunchroom supervisors – not teachers – look after children during lunch. Those supervisors have to be able to see all of the children so the children need to be eating in one location;
• Parents are welcome to volunteer, but the students still have to be monitored by the lunchroom supervisor, and therefore still
need to be in one space;
• Bringing food into the classroom increases the risk of attracting mice and other vermin.

The dejeuner debate

Shona acknowledges the lunch debate has been going on for at least four of the fi ve years she has been at Cody. With more than 400 students on average staying for lunch each school day, the Cody lunch program is undeniably well-attended. It isn’t clear whether that means there are more working parents in the neighbourhood who need their child to stay, or that students aren’t as bothered as their parents by where they are eating.

“I don’t like lunchtime at school,” Taylor fi nally admits to her parents. “It’s disgusting that we have to eat on the fl oor. It’s too noisy and loud, and sometimes we don’t have enough time to eat.” What is clear is that while we shouldn’t point to schools as being fully responsible for a child’s nutritional well-being, barriers to a student being able to properly eat a healthy mid-day meal can have negative repercussions all day long.

Says Cassandra Reid, whose children also attend Cody, “Children who do not eat lunch are so hungry after school they grab the quick, typical non-nutritional snacks. They then are not hungry for dinner or are not as productive doing their homework because they are getting an unbalanced source of nutrients for their brains.”

A fresh start?

The challenge for many Canadian schools is how to run lunch programs in schools that were built without lunchroom facilities, that lift kids off the floor and into adequately supervised environments that encourage thoughtful, balanced eating.

The parent council at Cody has put forth recommendations, some of which mirror, in part, successful programs from other provinces. Some ideas, such as using trays or eating on benches, have proved unworkable. The school is currently in the middle stages of an expansion which includes a 3,000 square foot “multi-purpose” room that may be used in the future as a lunchroom for some grades.

During construction this past school year, lunch at Cody has improved somewhat. In past years, 400 students ate together in the gym, but the renovation work prompted splitting the school in two: Grades 1 to 3 eat on the gym floor while the older grades enjoy recess, and then they switch. By some accounts this has helped with the noise and confusion. The parent council has also put forth new proposals including looking at an option to have students eat in class as part of the last instruction period before lunch.

The new era

Those of us who went home or ate in small groups at school should consider ourselves lucky. Today’s elementary schools have to make tough choices to accommodate changing demographics and tighter budgets.

Working with solution-minded educators who concur that that kids should come first, parents at Cody and other schools are hopeful that their schools can deliver lunchtime programs that everyone, including kids like Taylor, can easily digest.

*at the parent’s request, names have been changed for privacy reason

Alison Rockwell is a writer and mother of two elementary school-aged children in Toronto. She looks forward to the day her kids are old enough to make their own lunch.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

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