Why should students lose their lunches over bad food education?

By Corey Mintz - Published on October 11, 2016
a child looking unhappy about the lunch before him
'As young as possible, children should become familiar with preparing basic salads, soups and sandwiches,' writes Corey Mintz. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock)

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Teachers literally taking food out of the hands of children is deplorable. When I read about teachers in Ontario’s Durham Region School Board confiscating meals and snacks found to contain such contraband as Goldfish crackers, banana bread and kielbasa sausage, I was as incensed as the Toronto Star’s flashy headline was supposed to make me. (Except for the banana bread. I’m allergic to bananas — and if they’re not safe for me, they’re not safe for anyone.)

When it comes to school nutrition, I can understand the motivation. Teaching is a hard job, and handling a classroom is made all the more challenging when students bring in sugar-loaded snacks that wind them up like drug addicts. We want kids to eat healthy food.

But confiscating foods is a classic nanny-state overreach. Sure, teachers overreach their mandate every day by coming in early and staying late, preparing for class and running after-school activities, and we ignore those types of boundary-pushing because they benefit us. But when they make decisions about our children’s health, it’s time to question their authority.  No, a father may not love sending his daughter to school with pizza for lunch every day, but taking it away and telling her she’s done something wrong is not a reasonable solution.

But what do we expect? Everyone involved in the situation — parents, children and teachers, too — are clueless about food, because it’s not something we value in school the way we do math, science, English or phys-ed. This ignorance makes us vulnerable to idiotic decisions like this. Left without proper tools, or a framework for teaching and learning about how to eat, it’s no wonder exasperated teachers resort to this.

The Durham Region School Board incident is not an unexplained fluke. It’s the natural extension of having no national school food program or strategy for raising children who know what healthy, nutritious food is, or how to shop for and prepare it themselves.

Is food education like sex education? Do people believe it’s the responsibility of parents? How did that work out?

Not too long ago, I visited a junior high school home economics classroom (a.k.a., a kitchen) to teach a cooking class to grade six students. Before the class started, the room was sitting empty, gathering dust. You could practically hear Nirvana echoing off the walls, the music that was playing when the subject was decommissioned in the 1990s by the Mike Harris government and its Common Sense Revolution. There was no fancy equipment. But the fridges, stoves and ample counter space all still worked.

In an ideal world, we would have real food education. Every school would have a garden, where students learned about planting and harvesting vegetables. Or, instead of school trips the mall (where, yes, they can learn how the Starbucks on the east side of the building is different from the Starbucks on west side) we could arrange visits to farms, so students could see where vegetables come from.

As young as possible, children should become familiar with preparing basic salads, soups and sandwiches. The kitchen is a perfect classroom — a place to put math, science and literacy skills to practical use — so young people can learn to cook, making them less dependent on the fast and easy food solutions that have made 26 per cent of Canadian children overweight or obese.

Children’s involvement with cooking is directly related to their food choices. When they get their hands dirty, when they help to make family meals at home, they grow familiar with ingredients and are more likely to choose real food and fruits and vegetables over processed options. I know children who would refuse to eat a carrot that’s not in “baby” form. But I’ve also seen kids pluck carrots from their own backyard, brush off the soil and eat them — with the peel still on. No ranch dip.

Instead, between our outdated methods of food education, the decreasing amount of time we have to cook for or with our children and the junk food advertising we’re increasingly exposed to, we have set up students, teachers and parents to fail. 

More than the specific decisions of the teachers in that Toronto Star article, the most upsetting detail was that “many teachers discourage home-baked treats.”

I understand the increasing concern over allergies. But when food made by hand and with love is less trustworthy than a store-bought, factory-made product, we are headed in the wrong direction.

The next logical step is banning food altogether. Schools don’t know if you compost in your home, if you ask guests to remove their shoes, if you double-dip the peanut butter knife in the jam jar or if you wash your hands after blowing your nose. How can we trust anything that comes from your kitchen? The biggest mistake would be to use this case as a prompt to waste time arguing over what foods are — or should be — allowed in schools.

Banning pizza from the school cafeteria just prompts students to head to the nearest pizza joint. Teach them to cook whole grains and vegetables, and you don’t have to kibbitz over what foods are forbidden.

We tell schools that their task is to prepare students for post-secondary education. Schools do this by having them memorize facts for standardized tests. Somewhere along the way, we decided that cooking in school was a nice-to-have and not a necessity.

The result is that we cook less, eat out more and spend $20 billion a year on treating heart disease and stroke. Maybe it’s time to reopen those home-ec classrooms.

Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.

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