Should schools push children to eat healthy?

Seetha Ananthasivan, Director Bhoomi Network, Bangalore, felt that it was simplistic to think of any stand as good or bad, that there was a need to engage the children in questioning, thinking and making decisions, amidst various influences. If the television was extolling some food as good, it would only confuse the child if he/she were just told that it was bad. In struggling with the black, white and grey, it was important to keep the spirit of enquiry alive.

This seemed to strike a chord with Vatsala, a student of Vijaya College, Bangalore. She felt that children should be shown the whole picture. It appeared that the sessions in the conference had given her new perspectives. She added that giving children information about how advertising strategies are designed to work and what health problems the American attitude about food has caused would make a great impact; an incentive when they make changes would help too.

Challenges in change

When an advertisement could make smoking cigarettes look cool, children cannot discern between good and evil unless told by teachers, felt Veman Prasad. Jayashree Sharma representing NCERT at the conference wondered if a child could ever give up on things that appealed by listening to his/her teacher.

For their part, global corporations know how powerful they are when they say “We will tell you  what is cool today". What speech can be more powerful wondered Gautama – When children emulate each other, what will it take for a child to take a position apart from friends, what challenges will he / she have to overcome?

The struggle was best answered by Vatsala, a student herself. She explained how she was a butt of jokes amidst friends as she held on to her position of eating healthy food. It was a difficult situation for her. She felt it would help if teachers shared their own experiences in the face of temptation.

The challenge was well articulated by Rinku. The biggest price one paid, she felt in such choices was to be alienated from friends, even one’s partner at times. In today’s world when our social circle is already limited, every change is weighed against the loss of relationships. Fear of loss is more daunting than the change itself, she added.

Seetha said that one ought to look at historical trends of the tobacco problem to understand how a similar fight against junk food would evolve. She noted how in the last 100 years especially the recent 20 years the protest against cigarettes had intensified leading to bans that made smoking ‘uncool’. It happened but it took time to bring about that change in image. However, if smoking continues despite everything, it is attributable to its availability. She quoted Marshall McLuhan and said “Medium is the message”, so it is important to ban junk food and simultaneously educate. She acknowledged that it may or may not work right away, but it was important to take a stand.

Should teachers have a personal position about food?

Teachers are often pushed to introspect when plain-speak does not work with children. So did Rema Kumar, Director of Prakriya Green Wisdom School, Bangalore. When she failed to convince a child who refused to give up on noodles, she found herself looking for ideas in her own struggle against tempting but unhealthy food.

"Is it not possible to help a child see the human body as beautiful, fragile, resilient and something that needs care, not just externally but internally?" said Sudha Premnath, a teacher from The Valley School, Bangalore. Her observation earned appreciative and understanding nods from the panelists and the audience alike as she went on to add that such learning may strike the necessary chord for a sustainable change.

"Teacher is a contextologist" felt Sumitra Gautama, teacher at The School, Chennai. By creating contexts for children for example introducing them to the views and practices of an organic farmer, a teacher can help children think larger than themselves and beyond personal desires. "A teacher’s role may best be termed as impersonal caring", she said.

How do institutions take a stand in the face of friction and resistance?

Rinku explained how the Sahyadri School had taken a position by saying ‘No’ to processed food at school. By eliciting the involvement of parents in all aspects of education including choices of food, the school tries to sustain the message.

Anju Khanna and her team have similarly tried to draw parents into the school’s efforts. For this, parent-teacher meetings were converted into ‘food festivals’ to introduce the merits of nutritious food to parents and thus evoke an acceptance for the school’s position against processed and unhealthy food.

Imagine if a child learnt geology and biology and what not, by watching from seed to harvest! "At the Learning Centre we grow our own food" says Arzu Mistry. Instead of having to say "don’t do this, don’t eat that", they enjoy the fascination of every child as he/she learns in action about "amazing" nature.

Seetha (as an educator) felt that she could not at times decide whether she should take a stand, whether she should draw limits or should she let the child experiment. However big the dilemma and the difficulty in telling the child, she felt that should not deter the teacher in an institutional setting or for that matter a parent (who often face a crisis in decision making on this) from putting his/her foot down on food habits of children.

Usha Vasthav, founder of Yogakshema Rehabilitation and Wellness Centre, Bangalore provided three inputs to address the issue practically. First, think beyond schools and colleges in making available healthy food options at workplaces, thereby carrying the message farther. Second, use the influence of media to strategise against the appeal of junk food and promote safe, nutritious food. Third conduct awareness workshops for parents and teachers.

She also said that a simple solution in response to resistance was to permit indulgence in processed/junk food once in a while. Experience will work better than information, she concluded to the agreement of the other panelists.

Summing up and still reflecting

Gautama called for a collective ‘Dying of Diffidence’ if educators considered it their responsibility to ensure that students ate good, safe food. "Change is not going to be easy, but we must be ready to smile when others make fun of us", he said.

He felt that if institutions were willing to take a stand but unable to sustain it, it was due to a lack of process to back it. Gautama urged the teaching community to listen well to each other and craft solutions together with the parents and students.

"As educators, fundamentally our role is to strengthen the conviction of young people to think for themselves and refuse to be invalidated", he said. For every parent and certainly for those attending the conference and introduced to the overwhelming issues surrounding food, such a lofty oath by the teaching community, reaffirmed their faith in educators.

The organisers say other Bangalore based schools were represented in the audience, including Delhi Public School, East West School, Bishops Cottons Girls High school to name a few. The conference thus had created the first platform for sharing of views. A unanimous concerted call from educators would be critical in furthering the inclusion of healthy eating in school syllabi.   ⊕

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