School meals a hot topic at John Gray meeting

The troubling findings that rates
of childhood obesity in Cayman have more than doubled in past 20 years formed
the axis of the discussions at last Thursday’s standing room only Home School
Association meeting at John Gray. School meals and the new standards for food
provision introduced this year generated much comment and discussion from those
in attendance.

Chaired by association president
Dierdre Seymour, the meeting also brought out Education Minister Rolston Anglin
and featured a presentation by Health Services Authority Community Dietitian
Bethany Smith.

The menu changes are the result of
a new policy introduced this year to encourage better eating habits in Cayman’s
schools. The new school food standards define the types of food that are no
longer allowed or are restricted. The revamped meals are being introduced
alongside a ban on delivery and consumption of fast foods in schools.

“The benefits for students include
a reduction of empty calories which come from manufactured foods high in fat,
sugar and salt, but lacking essential nutrients,” said Ms Smith.

“Students will be provided with
balanced meals containing good sources of protein and starch, accompanied by
lots of vegetables, salad and fruit.”

However, parents raised concerns
that some prices were too high and that their children did not like some of the
new food offerings.

“I don’t give my son slop at home
and I don’t expect him to get it at school,” said one irate mother.

Ms Seymour encouraged the mother to
head up the association’s new canteen committee, proposing that parents with
concerns should not expect action on any issues that are of particular concern
to them if they do not get involved.

Ms Seymour was not alone among the
evening’s speakers who suggested that parents try the food themselves to see if
the complaints from their children were warranted. Mr. Anglin said the ministry
had sent out undercover food tasters to the schools, even going so far as to
have students order the food for them to avoid any potential special treatment,
and asked parents to join with government to promote better eating habits.


Investing in the future

Ms Smith presented Health Services
Authority figures which showed that in 1987, some 19 per cent of children ages
three to five were classified as overweight or obese. In 2005 that percentage
had risen to 45. In 2009/2009, 37 per cent of adolescents ages 11 to 14 had
been classified as overweight or obese.

“Around one in five people are
being affected by the obesity epidemic locally,” said Ms Smith.

The new standards focus on reducing
foods and beverages associated with child health and nutritional problems,
including obesity, diabetes and tooth decay and erosion.

Mr. Anglin questioned the logic of
investing in education if the young people benefiting from it could not enjoy
their lives later on. 

“The rates of diabetes, high blood
pressure and cancer are astronomical here,” he said.


Schools support healthy habits

“The reason we are doing this in
the schools is that virtually all young people are enrolled in schools. They
have the opportunity to eat a large portion of their daily food intake and to
be physically active at school,” said Ms Smith.

“Schools are an ideal setting for
teaching young people how to adopt and maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.”
The US Surgeon General’s office has found overweight kids not only suffer
health issues but are also targets of early and systematic social discrimination,
and suffer from low self esteem. Obesity is blamed for hindering academic and
social functioning, while overweight children themselves feel social
discrimination as a result of being overweight.

Ms Smith said obese schoolchildren
were absent two more school days than their average weight counterparts,
overweight middle school students displayed lower standardized test scores in
reading comprehension, were five times more likely to have six or more
detentions, had lower physical fitness scores, and were less likely to participate
in athletics.

Other studies demonstrate that
healthy and physically active students are more likely to be motivated,
attentive, and academically successful.

Mr. Anglin advised parents
convinced that their children suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder or
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, though they were not clinically
diagnosed as such, should consider the high fat, high sugar foods their
children consume as possibly to blame.

John Gray Principal Aldin Bellinfantie
said he had already noticed decidedly fewer fights after school, which he
attributed to a drop in hyperactivity caused by sugary drinks.

Mr. Anglin said he would do his
best to have issues with the new meals and other changes introduced this year
addressed immediately. Praising the huge parent turnout, he said that at the
next association meeting in October, he hoped for even higher attendance and
that other issues, such as the subjects being offered, exam boards, and the
efforts the ministry is making to line up children for success, would merit
more discussion.

“We need more parents involved in
our schools if we don’t get more parents here, we will not achieve the outcomes
we want.”

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