School lunches conundrum

 The incidences of childhood obesity have doubled in the Caribbean over the last three decades according to several regional surveys. But weight gain is not the only issue more and more children are eating unhealthy food which might not necessarily show in weight gain but is not doing their bodies any good in the long run.
   Ultimately it is the responsibility of parents what their children eat but when children are eating school meals then presumably the responsibility then falls on the school to provide the healthiest options possible.
   Having visited a few primary schools last week the difference between what was being served in private schools compared to Government schools was clearly evident. Over at the private school children were being served homemade soup with French bread, salad, sandwiches or an option of chicken pasta and salad.
   In contrast at one Government school soggy pizzas glistening with fat and not a vegetable in sight to redeem it, were served out of the box, while at another   chicken tenders with French fries, served again with no accompanying salad and vegetables. Of the 29 children having lunch all took the chicken tenders while the salad option was left rejected on the serving hatch. My instinct was to bawl Jaimie Oliver style, “French fries are not a vegetable!”
   Jamie Oliver is the British chef who dragged school meals to the attention of the British public and the government in 2005, with the TV series “Jamie’s School Dinners”.
   Even a   high profile celebrity chef such as Oliver found changing children’s attitude to food was a herculean task. Oliver’s attempts to ban junk food from the menu and introduce nutritious food was met with opposition from pupils and dinner ladies and led to Oliver almost breaking down on camera with frustration.
   Here on Cayman it is no different and changing entrenched food habits, which children have built up and parents seem unable to break is complex and challenging.
   Sean Collins provides food to Government and private schools and has found that it is not an easy balance to provide food that is healthy and the children will eat. In the couple of years they have been providing school meals he says “we have experimented with dozens of different menus but he observes “unless there’s a teacher insisting they eat it they won’t eat the healthy choices.”
   Some principals of the schools also seem to feel that the basic problem is that the kids are just not accustomed to eating healthily. Principal of   Red Bay Primary Mrs Vickie Frederick says that if kids do not like the food they will throw it in the garbage bin and that children will go for the junky stuff on the menu.
   But one wonders why children are dictating within a school system what they eat and why there is no continuous monitoring of menus and their nutritional content by the Government. Chef Wayne O’ Conner, who provides lunches to two primary schools while admitting is not an easy task says it can be done  “But sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind and not give in to kids demands for junk food just because they want it.”
   The system
   Throughout primary schools on the Island school lunches are contracted out, either to the parent teacher association of the school, or to a private contractor.
    Bethany Smith is
community dietician/nutritionist for the Health Services Authority and she explains how contracts for school meals are awarded.
“Basically when the Government puts out their contract tenders, companies submit menus. I receive them anonymously and review them.” While she can tell what a menu contains she does not know important details such as how a meal is prepared or what portions are provided.
Smith standardises the menus against US nutritional standards and also takes into account Caribbean diet and blends the two together. She specifically looks at things like reducing salt, sugar and   fat. She then makes recommendations on how the menu can be improved.
All very well and good, however Smith admits “once it is out of my hands there is no regulation or monitoring of what happens to the menu.”
And that’s where the system falls down, a menu can look healthy on paper but once a contract is awarded it is no one’s responsibility to monitor that it remains healthy.
   When looking at the menu on line, the pizza I saw was supposed to be served with pasta salad and carrot sticks but if there were these accompaniments, I never saw them.
   Smith would like to see I national food policy for schools with a universal standard throughout but says unfortunately in education, “school food service is the lowest priority.”
   Whose responsibility
   So if the Education department is not overseeing what food is being served, whose job is it?
    Many of the principles contacted, do monitor the situation but feel that they are up against entrenched attitudes from parents and children.
   Wilberlee Range, principal North Side Primary says, “principals don’t really or should I say the schools don’t have a whole lot to say about school lunches.” In saying that when she has made suggestions about more fruit and veg and less heavy lunches, she has been told “That is what they will eat and are used to.”
   Marie Martin, principal of George Town primary, does try and make sure the meals stay healthy and talks to the contractors if they are not happy Recently the PTA was not happy with the desserts provided, daily ice-cream brownies and cookies   and wanted that cut out.
 At Savannah Primary the canteen is run by the PTA. Principal Margaret Rattray
says she thinks their menus are nutritionally balanced over the month, with a mixture of things the children like to eat and also things that are good for them.
”We also make suggestions to individual children and parents if we feel that there is a particular problem with the snacks provided”, she says.  “However, at the end of the day, we have little control over what the children bring in with them if parents choose not to listen to us.”
It is easy to point the finger at contractors but they are also trying to run a business.
   Collins says that initially when he started to provide school meals they tried things like steamed vegetables and brown rice and they couldn’t sell anything.
    They ended up losing lots of money in the first year and eventually had to offer what the kids wanted to buy. He feels he has had no support from the Government in trying to implement the healthier options.
   It is also down to how children pay for meals. In private schools they pre order so the contractor knows how much to make and deliver, whereas in government schools they sell by ticket on the day. In the first year Collins says they were making too much and the food was not getting sold.
   It is even more challenging in the senior schools. When they tried to stop providing the local foods such as oxtail, curried goat  barbecued chicken, foods  which  can be  very high in fat,  they had no sales what so ever. Frederick tells a similar story at Red Bay with drinks.  When they tried to change the beverages to healthier options, there was uproar because parents were asking why the children were not getting their red juice anymore.(Teachers believed the juice was  making children hyper.)
   Standardised eating plan
   Collins personally would welcome a standardised eating plan from the Government, as a caterer he wants to provide healthy food but it is also a business so he has to provide what the kids will eat or lose money.
   Chef  O ‘Conner   agrees there is not a lot of money to play with in providing school lunches  but he believes you can give kids healthier options without offering them carrot sticks and brown rice
 He thinks   the best way is by preparing the food in a healthy way and presenting it nicely so that kids find it appetising.
When nutritionist Smith does do the rounds of schools and talks to pupils she says, “I don’t get the impression that kids don’t know about healthy eating they are quite aware about what they should eat, but I do not think that the general environment here supports them.”
   It does take a conscious effort to eat healthily in Cayman, also with people having busy lifestyles; she believes it is just not a priority.
   Smith says “one of the things I hear frequently is how difficult it is to afford fruit and vegetables and when people are leading highly stressed lives and on a tight schedule it is easier to reach for cheap convenience foods”.
   Another advantage of a standardised food policy, in her opinion, would be that it would create a demand by school contractors to suppliers for certain foods that would then drive down prices. For instance if all schools had a certain choice of snack then it can be imported in bigger quantities and will move quicker.
   But for things to move on the Government might have to take more of a front seat, at time of going to press the Education Department had not answered any questions put to them by the Observer about a healthy food policy.
   At the moment the problem rests solely on the shoulders of principals and caterers who do try, but are facing an uphill battle with not much support from Government or it seems some parents.
   Frederick observes, “We do have PTA meetings and invite a nutritionist along but they (the parents) basically say that they give the children what they want. It’s the type of society we are living in that it’s quicker to take them to Wendy’s after school and then give them a bowl of cereal at 10 o clock at night.”
   Schools are places of education and that should include how to live a healthy life. Unless Cayman takes what they are feeding their kids in and out of school seriously, the future health wise does not look bright.
   But it can be done. Jamie Oliver gradually won over dinner ladies and pupils and his campaign galvanised the public and forced the Government to form a school Food Trust to monitor and advise schools about healthy food.