Local Schools Look to Power Lunches

As the province’s childhood obesity rates rise, an Edmonton school shows students how to plan healthy lunches and spurs them to be adventurous.

Illustration by Victoria Wiercinski

A classroom at Mother Teresa Elementary School in Edmonton is divided into four work stations.

At one spot, children from Grades 2, 4, 5 and 6 spread margarine on slices of whole wheat bread. From there, the assembly line moves to another table, where cheese and sandwich meat is placed on the bread. At the third station, the sandwiches are cut and readied to be put into paper lunch bags, which are custom-decorated at the fourth and final station.

“It’s like an edible Christmas present,” a child says as he looks up from his cheese-laying duties.

The inner-city school, located in the shadow of Commonwealth Stadium, had its lunch program cut back by E4C, a non-profit organization in the city that raises funds to help provide meals to school kids. Mother Teresa can now only provide lunches for its kids four days of the week. When families were told about losing the Thursday meal, school staff learned that 130 out of the 311 students might be going without a lunch every week.

So teacher Trish Roffey and her students in different grades rolled up their sleeves. They sought donations to cover the food costs of $250 a week and created a budget for a brown-bag lunch program.

“We know that the Thursday lunch is never coming back,” says Roffey. “So the kids are learning to watch for sales. They are collecting the flyers.”

Every Thursday, under Roffey’s supervision, a group of students spends the morning preparing lunches for 130. Once the sandwiches are made, other items are placed in the bags – juice boxes, fruit, granola bars. Then they are taken from class to class and distributed. Students are enthusiastic about receiving lunches from their peers; cheers erupt in classrooms when the food arrives.

The Thursday brown-bag program also encourages the kids to make healthy choices by teaching them to follow Canada’s Food Guide.

While the ethnic diversity of the school – the Muslim children, for example, don’t eat pork – and the funding limitations don’t allow the kids to design a meal plan carte blanche, Roffey finds that kids are far more willing to try new things than adults might think.

“One week we put dragon fruit in the lunches and the kids thought that was neat. The kids are adventurous. They know that good food makes them feel good,” she says.

That’s an added value. Aside from keeping them from going home hungry, the lunch program gets the students thinking about what they eat – it opens them to new foods and flavours, and it gets them away from the hotdog-and-pizza diet associated with a growing number of unhealthy kids.

According to Alberta Health and Wellness, 29 per cent of children at the Grade 5 level are overweight or obese and only 27 per cent report eating the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. That’s consistent with troubling findings across the country, where one in four kids ages two to 17 are overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada.

The province’s studies have linked the unhealthy eating habits of our kids to “increasing rates of Type 2 diabetes in young people,” according to the most recent report on how Alberta’s kids are faring.

“I am very concerned; the trend has some very serious consequences if it is not altered,” says Minister of Health and Wellness Gene Zwozdesky about the increasing number of unhealthy kids in the province. “We cannot stand back and watch these statistics and projections grow.”

Last December, the province hosted the Action on Wellness Forum, which brought together not only educators and medical professionals, but food producers, store owners and farmers.

“We have to get at the problem right at the grassroots level. By the time the kids get to Grade 5, the eating habits have already been formed, where kids eat the quick snack foods with little or no nutritional value, some of which are very high in sodium or trans fats,” says Zwozdesky.

These unhealthy kids are likely to become even unhealthier adults. If we don’t address the reason our kids’ bellies are growing, the drain on the public healthcare system is anticipated to be hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Those are extra dollars the province does not have in any budget.

So the provincial government is spending money now in an effort to save dollars down the road. Alberta Health and Wellness spends $519 million a year on preventative measures. One of the initiatives is aimed at getting kids more active and making better eating choices. Exercise and healthy eating aren’t mutually exclusive. Diet is only effective if it is supported by physical activity.

Health Canada now recommends children get 60 minutes of exercise per day. That’s down from the 90-minutes a day guideline before 2011. The new standards were lowered to make the daily goal more easily obtainable.

In Alberta, the recommended daily activity time is lower still. Healthy U, a provincial program that educates children and adults about exercise and healthy eating, mandates that each child from Grades 1 to 9 get 30 minutes of physical activity every school day. That program was launched in 2005, six years before Health Canada changed its guidelines.

“It’s difficult for this to happen overnight,” says Zwozdesky. “We need family units, we need school units working with us – or there will be a growing dependence on the system to help correct some problems that are perfectly avoidable.”

Just as Alberta’s Healthy U promotes healthy, natural foods over the processed products marketed to kids, the federal government is also trying to give fruits and vegetables some needed PR help.

Health Canada has created a fictional 10-year-old girl, Florence, who keeps a diary about her activities and eating habits. Her diary is featured on Health Canada’s website. She stays away from sugary sodas, fruit punches and processed food, and she’s willing to try new things. Helping with the grocery shopping encourages her to move out of her comfort zone. “Today, we bought my favourite cereal and a kind of fruit I have never tried before, lychee, which my best friend told me about,” reads an entry from Florence’s online diary.

Eating a lychee may be a very small part of Florence’s day, but the message is there: Try new things, you may like them.

But letting kids try new things doesn’t mean letting them have whatever comes their way. Dr. Tom Warshawski, head of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, advises, “You have to watch the salty, savoury foods, but if you are watching the portion size and ensuring that you get the right amounts of fruits and vegetables, then variety is great.”

The Childhood Obesity Foundation stresses the “5-2-1-0 rule” – that kids should have five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, no more than two hours of television or computer time a day, at least one hour of physical activity a day and zero sugary or artificially sweetened beverages.

Warshawski hasĀ  the following advice for parents who want to ensure their kids choose natural oatmeal over sugary cereals, or fruit ahead of fruit-flavoured snacks: “When you start on solids [at six months of age], try to introduce a variety of food … sometimes it will take 20 or 30 attempts to get the child to eat something. It takes them time to get used to the texture and consistency.”

It’s OK if your child swears off one or two items. Warshawski says some people have enzymes in their tongues that make broccoli taste like sulphur. Parents have to roll with it and focus on new flavours the kids do like.

Once they become toddlers, kids will have good and bad days at the dinner table, so patience is key. “Some days they eat a lot and some days they aren’t hungry at all,” says Warshawski. “It is up to the parents to provide good food choices for them and allow them to self-regulate. They will eat as much as they need.”

Just keep them away from the boob tube, he says, especially if they haven’t hit their second birthdays yet. “Kids tend to eat what they watch, and the ads on Saturday morning cartoons aren’t for carrots and broccoli. They are for chocolate puffs, the kind of food you wouldn’t even feed your dog,” he says, adding, “There’s no such thing as Baby Einstein,” meaning it’s up to parents to teach them how to make smart eating decisions early on.

Get kids involved in the kitchen and at the grocery store. You will find they will be more excited about trying new things and more interested in how things get to the table.

So far, it’s working at Mother Teresa school.

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