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Optimum nutrition for the school day

Wriggling kids with poor concentration are a common feature of a contemporary classroom. Community awareness is on the up, and schools, parents, and society at large, are all ready for a solution.

Opinion is split on the causes; some say too much screen time, some say diet, while some point to an indoor culture and over-structured play. It seems likely that the culprit is the combination of all of these factors. While we can’t influence all of these factors, schools can address dietary factors, by providing access to nutritious food at school.

Naturopaths have long touted the benefits of a healthy diet for mood and concentration, but increasingly, the problem is being addressed by government bodies and independent schools’ associations. Parents scour supermarkets for healthier ways to pack lunches, governments move towards healthier canteens, and teachers are calling for proper nutrition on school mornings. There is consensus on one thing: food matters.

While educators and school leaders cannot control what a child eats at home, what they eat at school can be influenced by a canteen that promotes a positive relationship with food, and healthy dietary choices.

Governments have responded with programs, underpinned by the National Health School Canteen (NHSC). These programs provide frameworks within which canteen coordinators can develop menus that are more balanced than the chicken nuggets and pies and sauce from my childhood.

Even when the school does agree to implement the NHSC system, limitations are apparent, with critics wondering why a sugar laden strawberry milk is an appropriate inclusion in the ‘Green Light’ everyday food category, while little attention is paid to preservatives and additives.

Psychologists specialising in behaviour management have identified preservatives, colours and additives as detrimental to concentration and cooperative behaviour, and many are concerned that conditions such as ADHD and hyperactivity can be exacerbated by consuming products containing these additives. There has been cautionary advice, and considerable research into the link between artificial colours and flavours dating back to Dr Ben F. Feingold’s five-part study, and book release in 1974. Anecdotal evidence from parents have supported this theory ever since, and the list of allowed additives is disturbingly dynamic. Perhaps nobody really knows what damage these cosmetic food additives cause, and the concern warrants a move towards natural, or real food.

With autoimmune disease at an all-time high, new research coming out of Israel and Germany, provides many nutritionists and dieticians the indications they have been expecting. Aaron Lerner, of the Technion’s Faculty of Medicine, and Dr. Torsten Matthias of Aesku-Kipp Institute, Germany have published findings on the damage to health caused by processed food. The new research has linked the rise in consumption of additives and processed food with the rise of auto-immune disease, and the implications may change the way we feed our children.

Despite obvious limitations, the mere existence of healthy canteen initiatives indicates a move towards change. For models, we can look to countries such as France; a country with half the obesity rate of Australia’s.

Nutritionist, Natalie Harms specialises in childhood nutrition. After researching the role of government in canteen guidelines, internationally, she feels Australia could wield far greater influence in schools.

“In Australia, it depends on the principal and school P&C as to how strictly the NHSC guidelines are even incorporated. School lunch programs are a very serious aspect of school in France”. Ms Harms would like to see food culture improved in Australian schools.  The French ideas of food quality, eating as part of the social fabric, (which means they need time to eat) all inform the way food is eaten by French students. 

French children have 45 minutes just to eat, but France is not the only country to place emphasis on taking time to eat; Brazilian children also enjoy a protracted eating time. In Italy, many students go home for lunch, but wherever food culture is positive, children have more than ten to fifteen minutes to gobble down a sandwich so they still have time to play. A Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that children with less than 20 minutes to eat school lunch consume significantly less of their main food, milk and vegetables than those who aren’t rushed.

 So what is a school to do?

Stephanie Alexander Garden Program

For a grass roots change in nutrition awareness, education is required to alter the way children even think about food.

The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program promotes a connection between food and its origin for children. The practical experience of producing raw ingredients, and then combining them into a meal to share together establishes pathways for good eating habits.

The program can also provide access to nutrition that may not be a part of some children’s everyday life. Gardening and cooking programs can also act as an anchor activity, improving engagement, and in some cases, even attendance. For more information on the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program, visit:

Nutrition in the curriculum

Katie Booth is an accredited practising dietician and health promotion officer of Healthy Kids Australia, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting and influencing healthy food choices for children. “Nutrition education, and teaching practical food preparation skills, helps students to make informed food choices in an environment saturated with fast food advertising that encourages high energy and low nutrient foods.” Ms Booth advocated.

Some success has been achieved through implementation of Healthy Kids’ education resources, as well as department inclusions in Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum.

Healthy Kids promotes the Crunch and Sip Campaign, operating in Western Australia. Versions of this practice have been adopted by many schools Australia wide., With the objective of hydrating students, and improving nutrition, the program invites teachers to allow eating and drinking in class during morning session. “Not only does Healthy Kids provide classroom nutrition education resources linked to curriculum outcomes, it also encourages a whole-of-school approach.” Ms Booth explained.

Healthy Kids has generated free teaching resources linked to curriculum. For more information, and grade specific curriculum resources:

Brain food in the lunchbox

The unfortunate reality is that we do not have the French, or Italian system, and governments are not likely to bring back school dinners any time soon. While the blight on most parents’ school morning prep is packing a lunchbox, many school tuckshops do not offer foods that support learning, energy and immunity, and in smaller schools, only operate one or two days per week.

Healthy lunches keep Arlo happy and alert
Healthy lunches keep Arlo happy and alert

For many, the lunchbox rigmarole continues, though some schools are getting creative with food provisioning, revamping tuckshop menus, or even ordering in. School canteens rely heavily on parental assistance, and due to growing awareness about diet, an interesting trend is occurring. Parents are taking on school canteens with gusto, and pushing for access to fresh and delicious food throughout the school day.

Many parents balance an increasingly frenetic schedule with an undeniable increase in nutritional awareness, by planning ahead and batch cooking – but no parent has a perfect lunch packed every day.

A growing understanding of the downside of processed convenience food has left parents looking for a solution other than the choices offered on a traditional canteen menu.   Healthy eating advocates frequently express frustration with the quality of food served to children at school.

Jamie Oliver’s overhaul of the school lunch in the UK attracted media attention worldwide, and effected considerable change in the diets of many school children. Alas, Australia is not a school lunch country; it’s a lunchbox and canteen country.

So how to transform school lunches?  

Freshwater Bay Primary School students love their healthy lunches
Freshwater Bay Primary School students love their healthy lunches from School Lunch Online

School Lunch Online was created by a frustrated school mum, with a degree in nutritional biochemistry, and a background in IT. Kate Cowley decided to use her IT skills to launch an online food portal to give everyone a break. “I knew the online platform was in place, but I wanted to open up the ordering to include local providers if that’s what school communities wanted”. School Lunch Online also offers the IT solutions to solve the scrabble for coins and paper bags on lunch order morning, and for some schools, there is a combination of both ordering in and the school canteen. The system enables children and parents to order school lunches, any time from school approved suppliers. “Many schools are operating their own canteens and we are enabling these schools to streamline, and bring the ordering process online.” 

It’s about better access to nutrition, but also about making life easier for schools and parents.  Freshwater Bay Primary School Principal Stephen Ivey said “I need my teachers to focus on teaching, not running around counting change, collecting brown paper bags and trying to juggle ad hoc lunch delivery.” Freshwater Bay Primary had Kate design their menu with nutrition and taste in mind. Schools can be as involved as they like, or they can just let Kate use her background in nutrition to take care of it, like Stephen Ivey has. “It has all been so simple with little input by us, School Lunch Online has taken care of it all”.  Lunch options for office workers are considerably healthier, and tastier than a few decades ago. Sushi Train, noodle bars, margarine free sandwich bars and freshly cut salads are all available ‘brain food’ for adults. Children, whose brains arguably need nutrition the most, are still eating pies and sausage rolls from the pre-health-revolution era. Some schools might be reluctant to let go of the old favourites, and menus can be tailored for the school. “We’ve sourced some excellent providers who do the comfort foods that kids love, but without the nasties, like preservatives, or vegetable oils that turn to trans fats”.  

Online ordering systems have the advantage of tapping into existing local businesses, or accessing healthy options like Byron Bay Pies or Noshu Donuts, which are made with coconut oil, are sugar free and reportedly “just like the real thing”.   New Victorian school, Sandridge School has registered with School Lunch Online with their chosen supplier, the café across the road. General Food Co. provides their full lunch menu in a staff only section, and a special menu for the kids with an array of freshly cut sandwiches, winter warming soup, and hummus with cut veggies, to name a few. At an average price of $2.50 to $5 for a full meal item, the cost of these nutritious items compares with your average tuckshop menu.  With the growing obesity epidemic and associated health problems in our society, coupled with adverse effects of children eating foods laden with additives and preservatives, this is another ‘baby step’ in the right direction for a healthier future.

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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