The State of the School Lunchbox

Please, Just Educate Us

Food: probably one of your last, your next or your current thoughts. However, between clean eating and rising obesity we now find our relationship with it as problematic as common room politics. It can be hard to know what to pack a lunch box with: a Special K bar, quinoa, a sandwich, something from the vending machine, or nothing at all. We apparently make two hundred decisions about food every day. It’s what sustains us, affects our health, mood, performance and well-being. Yet it’s not deemed important enough to make it onto the curriculum. We leave school knowing how to solve a simultaneous equation, but not knowing how to feed ourselves. As we gorge on salt, sugar and fat, politicians keep on munching like nothing at all is wrong. Dirty eating is the norm.

Perhaps this is too harsh on education, as having attended six schools I must have learnt something. Let’s see… best avoid cake, green is good, portion size should match the palm of your hand – oh and not forgetting the wonderful ‘Food Pyramid’. All valid information, but when the media is barking at me that gluten will be the death of us; I’m only worthy if I start my day with smashed avocado; I’m causing climate change by eating meat… what school has taught me only adds to the bewilderment. How are carbs meant to make up the bulk of my diet when eating them will see me soar in dress size? We’re all confused. And when looking around the common room at lunchtime it’s clear to see kids have given up. If it’s not white bread with limp lettuce it’s a Big Mac or chips from the canteen.

And who can blame us, when the world dictates healthy eating is a privilege of the middle class, beautiful Instagrammers, or people who haven’t learnt to ‘love themselves just as they are.’ By school failing to teach us the truth about health – that a homemade veggie lasagne and walking the dog is just as valid as a picture-perfect smoothie bowl and Sun Salutations – we are left vulnerable to not only weight gain but weight loss. In 2015, a report commissioned by Beat estimated that 725, 000 people across the UK are affected by eating disorders[1], but others have put this number closer to 1.6 million[2]. Pertinent too is the terrifying rise in cases of orthorexia– a disorder where individuals develop maladaptive thoughts and behaviour concerning healthy eating. For those young people who are conscious about health, the lack of safe and reliable information provided through their education sends them to the unmonitored online world, where bikini bodies and spiralizers have them running from spaghetti to the scales.

On the other side of the equation, a 2014 survey estimated that 31.2% of children were either over-weight or obese[3]. Whilst the causes for this may be complex, there are some blindingly obvious reasons visible in my school canteen. One is the very food on offer: it doesn’t take A*s to work out what a kid’s going to buy when the choice is between a small pot of fruit for £1 or three large cookies for 90p. The only vaguely healthy choice in the vending machine is lentil crisps, and the macaroni cheese is certainly begging for some nutrients. We all know how hard self control is, but catering to temptation and kids’ wallets makes it near impossible.

The next issue comes back to education. Students are being misguided into thinking they’re being healthy because a pretty label tells them this fruit juice is one of their five a day; when they really need to be told is that ‘fruit juice’ is code for sugar. Yes it’s our own fault if we eat fast food – we know it’s bad – but it’s not our fault that we think we’re making righteous food choices when the truth is not readily apparent. The Department of Education may pride itself on ‘achiev[ing][4] a highly educated society’, but it’s ridiculous how little people actually know.

For over a year now I’ve been making daily packed lunches that have proved to me that, with just a little invention and willingness, it’s more than easy to eat healthily, despite pressures of time and budget. However, it has also highlighted key issues that need to be addressed in our relationship with food.

The first of these is the importance we give food in our lives. I’m frequently asked ‘but how do you have the time to make that?’ And when I answer ‘it always takes less then twenty minutes’ people can’t believe I would spend even this long per day on feeding myself. Due to our lack of nutritional understanding – that taking the time in the morning to make a bowl of porridge over grabbing a packet of biscuits will greatly improve your mood and performance – we are unwilling to give food the respect it deserves. Our reliance on quick convenience food is detrimental to our health, and it’s the fault of school for not telling us why ‘we are what we eat.’

The second issue lies with us not fully understanding what food is or how it works. This is similar to the last in regard to health, but also on the basic level of cooking – ‘how do you know those things will go together?’ is another question I’m frequently asked, or ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with a squash.’ Cooking for most is a hassle, something that requires time sweating in the kitchen checking to see if your dish matches the recipe. However, if we’d been taught, from a young age, the basic principles of flavour and cooking – this is the method for rice, here are the different ways to prepare a carrot – we wouldn’t bat an eyelid when it comes to throwing together a quick lunch from the odds and ends of our fridge. I am able to make varied packed lunches for the simple reason that I taught myself what food was about – and at home we’ve always eaten healthily and well.

The most distressing thing about watching your peers eat themselves into poor health is knowing how simple the solutions is: education. No one expects us to pass GCSE maths without assistance, so how are we supposed develop a healthy lifestyle without help? Just as you tell us how to solve that simultaneous equation, tell us how to be happy, healthy students. Since explaining to a friend of mine why his packed lunch of a white roll, flapjack, fruit juice and raisins wasn’t doing him any good he now comes in with salads. We, the school children, are the solution to this nation’s foodie nightmare, if only politicians cared for our health as much as they do our grades.









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