Should schools push children to eat healthy?

A Pune school has said ‘no’ to processed food at school and has involved parents in choices of food for the children. A number of other private schools, include many in Bengaluru are considering similar positions. The idea of schools intervening in what is traditionally the domain of parents was the topic of a panel discussion recently in Bengaluru.

The conference was held to spread awareness about the dangers of processed foods, genetically modified foods, chemical agriculture, factory farming and how our food system impacts climate change. Pic credit: Basavaraj Biradar

The discussion was held at a Conference on Food, Health and Climate Change on the 4th and 5th of December 2009, for educators from around the country. It was held at St John’s Auditorium, Koramangala. The Conference aptly called “Be the change” was organised by Bhoomi Network, a Bangalore based not-for-profit organisation “committed to education and sharing of ideas for sustainable living”. The conference was held to spread awareness about the dangers of processed foods, genetically modified foods, chemical agriculture, factory farming and how our food system impacts climate change.

One objective of the conference was to encourage a ban on processed foods and junk foods in school and college campuses and propel a movement in educational institutions for good, safe food. In keeping with this, a panel discussion was held on the second day of the Conference to deliberate on two aspects: Saying no to processed foods in schools and an appeal to the NCERT and Education Boards to include healthy eating in relevant syllabi.

Bhoomi has been working with schools and colleges for more than a decade through experiential learning programmes, such as organic gardening, workshops on ecology and understanding food etc.

Bhoomi Network is focused on research and dissemination around two clusters – 1. Food, Health and Climate Change 2. Communicating Wholistic Perspectives.

G Gautama, Director of The School, Chennai led the panel with an open invite to the teachers and principals in the audience. Four students joined about 15 teachers, principals and educators for the discussion onstage.

Renowned speakers had laid bare the interlinkages between food, nutrition, children’s behavior, learning ability besides macro issues of poverty, Indian agriculture and climate change at earlier sessions of the conference. The speakers had attempted to expose the stakes for Corporations, the Government, farmers and the consumers in the current day scenario.

Gautama cited from the “The Century of the self”, a documentary made by Adam Curtis for BBC which attempts to understand the roots and methods of modern consumerism and the tactics employed in public relations and politics to make the market tick and promote the impression that the consumer is in charge. He felt that in this conspiracy to keep the consumer dumb, the separation between the so-called guilty and the innocent is not distinct – common people have co-opted by electing the government, by buying the things or by holding the attitudes that they consider not healthy and by internalising a great sense of helplessness about what they can and cannot do. Therefore, he said that it was important for educators to think about their stand in the issues surrounding safe and healthy food.

Should schools take positions about food?

As educators, Gautama said that the panelists touched the lives of parents, fellow-colleagues and students. In this context, he opened the conversation by asking – Should a school, specifically a day-school take a position about food? Did the teacher’s role extend beyond teaching in the classroom to what the student ate, say, even when at home?

Hemaa Narayan, Principal of Sudarshan Vidya Mandir of Bangalore said “Yes, schools should take a position on food; after all, we are what we eat. When teachers could talk about religion, why not food?” However, if teachers used the “don’t eat it” approach it was a surefire way of ensuring that children would eat it, hence there would have to be a different way to convey the message, she added.

Vidya Premkumar, Secretary at Good Earth School, Chennai, agreed that true education should instruct for life including food and not be limited to books and examination.

Veman Prasad a student of Vijaya PU College, Bangalore, wholeheartedly approved of teachers educating students about food. He felt that a school being a second home, children would learn about life from their teachers.

What should positions about food be based on?

At this juncture, Gautama added an interesting dimension about food and religion. In the backdrop of the facts about resources utilised in the production of meat vis-à-vis rice vis-à-vis ragi, he asked the panelists – Should schools take a position about what to eat; would it be an advice / suggestion and how would they deal with feelings of guilt or resistance?

Anju Khanna from Mother’s International, Delhi, shared results of a study done on food habits of hyperactive children. Published research today links food additives and food colorings to hyperactivity in children, which though banned in many countries, continue to find their way into processed foods in India. The school’s study showed that children who indulged excessively in ‘kurkure’ (a packaged snack) and fast food came from families where parents could not cook at home owing to their work lifestyles. She felt that the teacher’s role in assessing children’s learning and growth in light of such trends was important.

Rinku, a teacher from The Sahyadri School, Pune, was of the view that the nutrition and health programme in their school had helped to enquire with an open mind into food, nutrition, heritage and its linkages with our present and the future. Although the school has taken a position of avoiding non-vegetarian food at school, the educators have to seek the involvement of parents in keeping up the programme during holidays, for instance by maintaining a food diary for the child. She admitted that they had faced resistance from some children who considered it as interference.

A teacher’s dilemma was well expressed by Gunasekaran, Principal of Sri KV English School, Chickballapur. He said that as a teacher he would want to replace a Coke with an apple for his student. However, he was now informed that a Washington apple has traveled many miles and been frozen for long to prolong its shelf life. “What shall I replace the apple with?” he quipped. It becomes critical to put in place healthier alternatives to compete against junk food; as another student said – “salads and fruits to pick as easily as a burger”.

Schools can be and have often been the agents of change. The Titan School, Hosur, introduced the concept of healthy food and learning about diversity in food. Meenakshi, Co-ordinator at the school explained that the children were asked to bring vegetables on one day, nuts on another and so on. She added that being located away from the city aided the non-availability of many junk foods to the school children and proved beneficial.

The issue of availability takes a different hue when speaking of the rich and the poor. Project Vision, Bangalore,  coordinates programmes at the Learning Centre for urban poor as well as at Mallya Aditi International School for children from affluent families. As Arzu Mistry of Project Vision puts it, at the Learning Centre, food is about survival, while food is about luxury at the elite international school and hence the manner of dealing with issues would be different.

S Jayaram, Principal of The Valley School, Bangalore, felt that food must be placed in context and distancing children from nature creates the biggest problem. He emphasised that it is not difficult to bring out elegance and simplicity of foods but it required that the correct examples be set in order to sustain the message.

 

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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