Food for thought vs. thought for food

Seetha Anand Vaidyam

Health and nutrition are crucial to life. Physical health is the foundation on which the superstructure of intellectual learning and emotional health is dependent! Research shows that diet can greatly influence physical, emotional, and intellectual health. If health is affected, life becomes stressful and is greatly compromised. A good and nutritious diet is an important source of health. Therefore, schools cannot ignore or diminish their focus on this. On an average, students have one major meal and one or two snacks within the school premises. Since true education aims at equipping one for life, if the quality of meals and snack within schools could be improved, it would bring about considerable improvement in the health of the students.

What could schools do?
Junk is for the trash, not for the recess/break time! The morning breaktime and evening recess time are major loopholes when unhealthy food in the name of ‘ready-to-eat’ packaged snacks and processed juices make their way into students’ diet. Junk food consumed at this time, affects the appetite and prevents proper intake of the next meal. Since fresh fruits and raw vegetables must be had at least a half hour prior to eating cooked food, the recess time before lunch is ideal for having salads. Schools could discourage students from bringing in unhealthy food items and insist they carry fruit, dry fruits, or salads. Healthy home-made snacks could be eaten during the evening recess time. Fresh fruit juices (made/sold in school) are a good option too.

Planning the school menu
Schools could opt for menus that include whole grains and fresh vegetables as against processed flours/fats and vegetables. Most schools discourage children from eating junk food, but often one finds schools serving dishes made out of refined flours/ sugars, and foods having trans fats. If school menus could be designed to consistently avoid the use of refined flours/grains such as maida and processed wheat, white rice, white sugar, etc., it would be a big step towards inculcating healthy eating habits. There are many tasty dishes that can be made with whole grains, jaggery, and fresh vegetables. School menus should ideally include adequate raw food and complex carbohydrates in the form of whole or unprocessed grains.

Lunchbox rules
In schools where students bring their own food, there should be guidelines on what food the students can bring and what they should avoid. Teachers could be given the duty of monitoring the lunch time discipline and content of lunchboxes. Parent volunteers could be encouraged to help in this regard.

Fruits/vegetables of the month
Many a time, one finds that children stick to a few vegetables or fruits and are hesitant to try others. To teach children the benefits of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, every month a few that are in season could be selected for grade-appropriate activities. Parents could be encouraged to send various dishes/salads made out of these vegetables and fruits. This would create more awareness about the benefits and tastes of different local vegetables and fruits and thereby facilitate the inclusion of the same in the child’s diet.

Parent education
Newsletters with articles on diet and nutrition should periodically be distributed among parents. Meetings regarding the diet of the students should be held. Topics that can be discussed are

  • Balanced diet
  • Importance of breakfast
  • Negative qualities of processed foods
  • Chemicals in food and the possible harmful effects
  • Simple ways of including wholesome foods
  • Food allergies and ways to manage them
  • Ways to build immunity through diet
  • Home remedies for simple ailments so as to avoid medication
  • Simple and quick recipes for healthy and tasty packed foods

Support groups
Schools can facilitate the forming of parent support groups where ideas/recipes and information regarding better food habits can be shared. Experts could be called in to demonstrate simple yet healthy recipes and share useful tips on improving the diet of the whole family. The support group could also help in preparing simple ready-to-eat healthy snacks, which could be sold to others. Monthly potluck lunches and picnics could be planned with students, parents, and teachers.

“Planting a thought” – kitchen gardens in schools

Many schools are fortunate to have an adequate area for a garden. Even when space is a constraint, there are ways to implement kitchen gardens, for e.g., one-square-foot gardening, terrace gardening, etc. Unused spaces in schools could be used to cultivate fresh vegetables and fruits. The produce could either be used in the school kitchen or be shared, in turns, by the students of different grades. If planned well, the produce could even be sold at a reasonable cost to the staff and parents. The school could also go to a nearby farm or cultivate a vacant plot of land from scratch with the help of students, parents, and teachers. This could become an ongoing project and be incorporated in the curriculum. It would then go beyond the “one off” event and enable consistent effort at creating awareness and self-sufficiency.

In the process, children could learn more about:

  • organic farming
  • working with soil types, manure, bio-fertilizers, composting
  • seed banks, seed conservation
  • marketing of vegetables and fruits, measurements, accounting, systematization of sales
  • Preservation of surplus harvest, storage and, marketing of products

Here are some suggestions regarding how various subjects could be covered in the process:
Math
Measurements; area/perimeter; accounting; allocation of funds, etc.

Science
Plant study; bio-pesticides and fertilizers; farm equipment, tools and methods of farming; health and nutrition – different food types and their role in personal nutrition; diet and disease management, etc.

Geography
Soil types; various land terrains and climates conducive to growing specific vegetables/fruits, etc.

English/second languages
Making poems, phrases, stories, vocabulary, grammar, etc.

Arts (vegetable carving, cooking, landscaping, etc.)

Social studies (history of farming implements, origin
of food, different cultural habits, etc.).

The author is a Remedial Therapist and Early Childhood consultant and trainer. She is also the author of “Good” Food – a guide to right cooking and eating’. She can be reached at [email protected].

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