My adventure with school lunches started a year before my child stepped foot into a school. During my stint as a community nurse, I had the opportunity to work in the children’s program. I got the shock of my life as I processed waitlists for occupational therapy (OT) services. I had limited understanding of what an OT did, and even less insight as to why there were so many children waiting for the service. In my mind, I was scrambling to find an explanation: was it that parents were too busy to help their children with writing? Where the class sizes too large and teachers didn’t have time to spend with children who needed extra help? Why were so many children struggling with printing? What had happened during the time I was in school, as this was not common, and I had no memory of occupational therapists working in the school system. I became very concerned about my own children, and spent copious amounts of time ensuring they could write their name before they started school. Thankfully, by the time I had my last child, I had more knowledge and relaxed considerably, allowing for a more organic learning experience.
I came across a resource a few months after the initial shock, which help shed some light on the situation. This video in particular https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=455&v=0UGhFNwkPr4, really captured my attention. Be sure to watch part 1 as there is great information in it as well. To be clear, I don’t condone this program’s ‘healthier’ options, however, this video makes a very strong point. Browsing through the Feingold website began to address some of the questions I had. As I went through the pages and videos, I started thinking about the intake assessment for the school program we as nurses had to complete, and the questions that parents were asked about their children. When it came to the dietary section, there were not many questions about food beyond how many meals the child ate in a day, and if there were any allergies. I am hoping that has changed since I left, but I seriously doubt it. I thought to myself, the waitlist is so long, what would be the harm of educating parents on the impact food has on learning? What would be the harm of sending them information from the Feingold website or other resources supporting healthier eating for better learning outcomes? At the bare minimum there should of at least been some mention of the Canada Food Guide (even though I am not a fan), or limiting convenient (processed) foods in lunches.
Recently I came across another resource, which only solidified the research I had found. Dr. Barbara Reed- Stitt served as an Ohio probation officer for 20 years. In 1971, she developed a program on the relationship of diet and behavior. A five-year study showed that over 80% of people on her program did not get back into trouble with the courts. Fourteen scientific studies have since proven that behavior is indeed affected by diet. Articles on her work have been in the Wall Street Journal, Science News, and The London Times. She has appeared on CBS Weekend News, Good Morning America, the McNeil-Lehrer Report, and testified before the Senate Select committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Her website www.foodandbehavior.comhas some excellent videos of interviews she has done over the years. She has also written a book called “Food and Behavior”, which shares how nutrition impacts students’ performance and how her nutrition program has kept over 5000 people out of prison. On my list of must-reads for sure.
We have become so caught up with ‘nut free’ lunches, and with very good reason, but have failed to address other threats to children’s health, especially since it directly impacts learning, attention, and focus for so many children. Nut- free options unfortunately do not always equate to healthier options, and certain additives in those foods can also trigger asthma, eczema, headaches, sleep disorders, hives, ear infections and bed wetting. While most of these conditions are not considered life threatening (except potentially the asthma), they can be chronic, debilitating and rob children of their quality of life.
So what does a typical lunch look like? What the heck is left to eat? For my family, school lunches meant no juices, no colored snacks, more baking, minimally processed foods, fresh fruits and veggies (or homemade fruit roll- ups), leftover dinner from the night before, rice pasta, and no wheat or dairy aside from the monthly pizza days. My youngest is quite the busy body already, and I can only imagine how hard learning would be if he had those trigger foods in his lunches on a daily basis. We are fortunate to be living in a time where there is an abundant amount of resources available on the internet with respect to lunch ideas. There are also groups on social media which exchange ideas. Offline, community workshops are now popping up, catering to this need, with businesses stepping up to the task. For the past few years, I have been hosting recipe parties at my home, and it is something anyone can do. Basically it involves inviting a group of friends, who each bring a prepared food along with the recipe – whether it be a main course, snack, breakfast food, or whatever. We all get to gather at a table and sample the various dishes, talk about the prep and where substitutions for healthier ingredients can be made. I usually do a real time demo from start to finish, to show just how quick some of these meals can be put together. My most recent party focused on plant based recipes as I had friends that had either transitioned to that lifestyle, or were looking to increase plant based food options in their lives, and were needing ideas. What a great evening of trying new foods, learning, and fellowship! Because of these recipe parties, I have added diversity to our meals and lunches are a drag because I have to still make them! In all seriousness though, if we want to maximize our children’s learning and minimize behaviors at school, it is worth taking some time to reexamine and fine tune their lunches. As you can see, convenience foods are far from convenient and one way or another, we pay the true price.