Feature Article: Food education, gone crackers.

In light of a 6-year-old’s expulsion from school over a choice of lunchtime snack, is a lesson in healthy eating being taught, or are teachers just taking the biscuit?

Cheese CrackersThe story in question is that of Riley Pearson, formerly of Colnbrook CofE Primary School, Berkshire. For having a packet of mini cheddars in his lunchbox, he was originally suspended for four days in January of this year for flouting the school rule requirement of a ‘healthy and balanced’ meal. His parents were then informed the following week that a full exclusion from school would be applied.

The school had recently introduced a new healthy eating policy after they were given an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted status in 2012. Informed by letter of the new policy that would now be in keeping with government guidelines; parents were told that chocolate, sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks would not be allowed. Riley was said by the school to be in “persistent and deliberate breach” of this policy, though his parents argue that “he is just six-years-old, all he does is take his lunchbox to school, it’s us who puts the food into his lunchbox.” Parents do ultimately get to choose what their children eat, but schools also have to work to recommended guidelines. What seems to be missing in this case though, is a third party to create an understanding of what’s involved, and to highlight the teamwork needed to avoid unnecessary exclusions.

Colnbrook is not alone in their new healthy eating initiative; schools nationally are taking charge of such policies to keep in line with Government recommendations. According to NHS statistics of 2012, 65% of adults and 30% of children in the UK are overweight or obese, with associated health problems costing the NHS upward of £5 billion, every year.

Not a subject to be taken lightly; so does sending home a letter of what can’t be included in school lunchboxes have enough parental impact to enforcelunchbox changes aimed at improving a child’s health and prevent obesity? And in Colnbrook’s case, was there an equal, if not increased focus on what lunchbox foods could be included? Riley, who has been at the forefront of this particular story ate the lunch he’d been given – which didn’t actually include any banned crisps, as Mini Cheddars are classed as a cracker – but if he, his parents, and the school had been better educated about food choices, and been given guidance from a more multi-angled approach, could this breakdown of communication between them all have been avoided?

The NHS and government use multi-disciplinary teams in their decision making and action planning. More frequently now, we also see parents invited into schools for joint workshops with their child and class’ teacher, to gain knowledge of the teaching methods used for subjects like maths and English. This helps to ensure that such methods can be understood, enforced, and taught at home. This approach is popular, works well, and should be considered with regard to providing education on healthy-eating, especially if the government want to reach their target of a “sustained downward trend” in the level of excess weight of children by 2020 and create positive lifelong eating habits.

Education is key. How does anyone know that one type of crisp or cracker differs from another, unless they have a certain level of ingredient knowledge? Food packaging, with its non-universal traffic light system isn’t instantly reliable unless you read the print closely, which a lot of busy parents don’t have time to do. Even then, how much does an average parent or teacher know about saturated or polyunsaturated fats, or how much salt a child is allowed per day? (The NHS guidelines actually recommend a maximum of 3g of salt per day for a 4–6 year old.)

Community Nurses are commissioned to advise parents until a child is 5 years-old with regards to the promotion of healthy eating and physical activity, but where does the guidance come from after that? Information is out there if you look for it – the Change for Life campaign has TV adverts and accessible printed information, and the Internet is always a go-to source. But if a sense of community and togetherness between a child, parent, and teacher was also included, a deeper understanding and commitment could be created, which in turn could see better, long-term outcomes – a reason why adult slimming groups such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World see such success, and are more popular then ever.

image source: nhs.co.uk

image source: nhs.co.uk

The Change for Life campaign has resources aimed for use within schools, but currently with no direct parent involvement. If regular groups were set up within schools to address healthy eating in a practical way, children and adults could gain a better understanding and education. A more practical involvement could see the outcome being less about rule following, and more about working together to gain knowledge needed for making good food decisions– prevention is usually better than the cure. There are companies out there like ‘Workshops in Schools’ that provide such a service, but at a cost to the school, who generally don’t tend to have spare money to invest in extra schemes.

Yes, parents are ultimately responsible for their children, and yes schools need to follow rules and guidelines, but in the case of Riley, something crucial is missing, and ideally, the government who aims to educate all, should take note of Riley’s situation, because he’s currently being taught nothing.

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