Wednesday 19 September 2018

Victoria White: Teaching kids to eat in school could save us from obesity crisis

Mother playing with her children on a picnic
Mother playing with her children on a picnic

We're on our way to being the fattest people in Europe. By 2030, 89pc of Irish men and 57pc of Irish women will be overweight, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The medics are saying the situation is "unthinkable". So let's do something drastic. Let's introduce school dinners.

Most of the remedies put forward for our obesity epidemic are about taking food away from kids.

We need a sugar tax. We need a law to stop fast food outlets opening close to schools.

But let's give them something back instead. They wouldn't be queueing up in the fast food outlets if they had a proper lunch at school.

Snacking is discouraged in France and Belgium and Finland and nearly every other European country where there's been a school dinner policy for decades.

In Ireland we've left it all up to harassed parents. We've cut the school day back so that rambling home from school for lunch - which I used to do as a child - has become impossible.

Nowadays our schools teach our kids that healthy food is cold and old and has to be bolted down. Day after day the dog gets the hardened rolls which, cursing and swearing, I part-bake for the kids every morning.

I can't really blame the kids for not eating them. But I do. Particularly when I find junk wrappers in their school bags.

Or when they cook themselves a meal when they get back from school just before I'm due to dish dinner and I have to stand over them with an imaginary rifle to get them to stay sitting until everyone is finished.

They say they don't have time to eat in school. That probably means they're impatient to get out to play.

Who could blame them when lunchtime usually means sitting in their classrooms opening their mammy's ancient sandwiches?


Believe it or not, some children are asked to stand up while they're eating so as not to put crumbs on the desks. I call that a human rights abuse.

Do we and the Government we elect think it's perfectly fine that many kids don't eat enough food to get the most out of the school day? By the middle of the last century other European countries were counting the cost of inattentive kids.

In the UK, chef Jamie Oliver made bad school meals a big political issue. His schools' programme made measurable improvements in kids' academic results and cut the absence rate by 15pc.

But we don't even have school dinners to complain about in Ireland. If mammy hasn't packed anything edible it's literally your hard cheese. Sit and starve why don't you, and let the others learn all around you.

As for understanding how to sit down and socialise over the table? We can't even relate to the French idea that the most important thing about school mealtime is how enjoyable it is.

But if you don't understand that sharing food is one of life's main enjoyments you'll never have good eating habits. You might say it's wrong of me to put all this at the door of schools. But some kids will not learn good food habits anywhere else.

That's why schools are important in developed economies, so every kid gets a chance to learn regardless of the education of their parents. This is how society progresses.

Starting school dinners is not beyond us. The local authorities already run very limited school meals programmes.

We should be planning now for every local authority to source school meals from local producers. We should plan to pool kitchens and dining-rooms and ban the building of any new school without both.

You say it can't be done? Why can every other country in Europe do it? Their schools have work-friendly school days but our Government will rightly face strong opposition if they introduce after-school care in schools with no hot food.

Meanwhile, our hungry, inattentive children are queueing up at the deli counter, getting ready to take their places among the majority of their peers who will be overweight as adults long before the the WHO's 2030 date.

Then they'll present those well enough to work with a healthcare bill they cannot pay.

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