Fixing school lunch rooms



Estimated Reading Time 5 Minutes

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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