Healthy Eating Curriculum: Is it?

Parents around the world want their children to have a healthy lunch either packed from home or available to students at school. While many school districts have set nutritional standards for the food children have access to in an educational environment, very little has been done to promote eating attitudes at school that nurture a healthy relationship with food.

Healthy eating guidelines vary from nation to nation. At the national level, guidelines such as Canada’s Food Guide (CFG) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) are a general reference source to classify food into food groups that can be combined to form the basics of a balanced diet. When CFG was originally published in 1942, the intention was to prevent nutritional deficiency in Canadians during a period of war-time food rationing. Since then, CFG has been published as a reference to “guide food selection.” The focus of DGA is more dire, with emphasis on “the importance of creating a healthy eating pattern to maintain health and reduce the risk of disease.” National dietary guidelines such as  CFG and DGA are deliberately vague because personal food preferences vary within a multi-cultural population of several million people. General dietary guidance for an entire nation assumes a certain baseline of health status; specific dietary concerns (ie diabetes, food allergy, etc..) should be addressed with a registered dietitian to develop a personalized dietary plan.

National dietary guidelines filter down to inform regional and community level service providers on the creation of what eventually becomes policy. Most schools around the world have their own healthy eating policy. What started out as a reference to guide food selection becomes a (often strict) policy on what specific foods are and are not allowed to be sold and/or consumed at school. Policy creates a framework for a safe and supportive educational environment. Healthy eating policies often prohibit anaphylactic agents to protect students with severe food allergies, and determine what foods can and cannot be sold on the premises for fundraising efforts. Policy can also be short-sighted by good intentions, usually in the form of promoting fruit and vegetable consumption. These foods tend to be praised as healthy foods, comparatively healthier than all other food groups. For those children who find fruits and vegetables particularly unpalatable, the absence of their presence in a lunch bag or lack of consumption in the cafeteria can inadvertently encourage bullying-type behaviours that are not acceptable at school in any other context – except around food.

We’ve had our own personal experiences with healthy eating policy. In Ontario, school healthy eating policy does not apply to food brought from home. Still, when my daughter was in second grade, she was threatened with the loss of recess for not eating her yogurt. That year, a lunch supervisor took my son’s entire lunch away from him, inspected the contents, and threw it back at him, calling his container of yogurt, granola bar, box of orange juice and bag of Lay’s potato chips, “junk.” Two years later, my daughter is afraid to bring yogurt to school and my son continues to be badgered by classmates who tell him the items in his lunch are not healthy. In the UK, healthy eating policy grants teachers the authority to confiscate food from children out of their home-packed lunch. In any other context, this behaviour would be considered abusive; however, both instances involving my children were defended by school administration, because it was done with the intention to teach kids about making healthy food choices.

What the adult in the classroom actually did on those occasions was model how to manipulate a power imbalance. Forty-two seven-year-old children learned that it is socially acceptable to publicly humiliate another person about the food they eat.

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Image Credit: Braunton Caen Primary School, Devon, UK

Health and Physical Education, The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8 is a 239 page document that outlines this subject’s learning goals and grade level expectations. The document uses the word healthy 568 times in a variety of contexts, carefully avoiding any definition of what healthy means in relation to food, or the criteria that is used to measure food choices in increments of healthier and healthiest. Without a clear definition on what “healthy eating” or what “healthy food” specifically is, healthier and healthiest become the personal opinion of whomever happens to be teaching the class. It is debatable how much this portion of the curriculum is education in the sense that food serves as a medium for children to build strong social bonds and learn about different cultures in their own curious ways. Instead, children are taught that the food we choose to eat determines who is like us and who isn’t. Cheese sandwiches, rice, and whole fat milk invite the risk of exclusion from one’s peer group for making different food choices.

It could be argued that education is a form of persuasion. Students expect their teachers to expand on the knowledge they already possess. The child who can scribble is persuaded through praise and recognition of personal achievement to make legible shapes, letters, and words, and eventually entire sentences, paragraphs and stories. Propaganda is also a form of persuasion, defined as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”. Propaganda isn’t always ‘bad;’ public health campaigns have made smart use of propaganda to encourage people to quit smoking and use seat belts.

“Education tries to pass along knowledge and skills deemed by society to be valuable. Propaganda is impelled by doubtful values to control people’s attitudes and behaviours. The aim of propaganda is to persuade its subject that there is only one valid point of view and to eliminate all other options. Propaganda is not education; it strives for the closed mind rather than the open mind. It is not concerned about the development of mature individuals. Its aim is immediate action. The propagandist merely wishes you to think as he does. The educator is more modest, he is so delighted if you think at all that he is willing to let you do so in your own way.” Leonard Doob (1909 – 2000)

In Ontario, grade five students are expected to be able to “describe how advertising and media influences affect food choices, and explain how these influences can be evaluated to make healthier choices (e.g., critically examining the reasons for celebrity endorsements or the plausibility of product claims, checking whether there is information in the advertisement that verifies the claims, asking for information about product ingredients and nutrients, critically examining the reality and healthiness of idealized body images in the media, evaluating diet plans against accepted nutritional criteria such as those used in Canada’s Food Guide.)” (p. 159) Certainly, media literacy is an important skill, however, grade five students would not be equipped with the tools to recognize, nor would children this age expect to be the targets of propaganda in a classroom. In a controlled experiment, grade 6 students who received instruction were able to learn how to identify seven propaganda techniques, but there was no evidence that being able to identify propaganda improved the students critical reading ability. Systematically shaping children’s perceptions of healthy eating and healthy food when they are in a cognitively disadvantaged position to distinguish opinions from facts and truths raises ethical questions. Even if a student could put forth a valid argument, the teacher still has the power to excuse the student from the classroom for being a disruptive influence.

Ten year old students are encouraged to “check the nutrition facts table to see how much fat, sugar, and salt is in the product.” (p. 157) This focus on evaluating the quality of one’s diet is inappropriate and potentially harmful in an educational setting. Although the curriculum states “growing bodies do need a certain amount of fat for healthy growth,” the certain amount stated is not clarified and misleads children into believing low fat options are the better nutritional choice. A review of the Canadian nutrition recommendations for dietary fat concluded there was no evidence that low fat diets in childhood would prevent illness in later life or benefit children as children. A low fat diet also reduced energy intake and children’s intake of key nutrients. The curriculum also makes assumptions such as the amount of influence children have over their family’s food choices and the economic factors that influence food selection. The diets of low income families tend to be higher in fat and sugar because these foods tend to be less expensive and more filling.

For those children who cannot eat like they are taught to in the classroom, making healthy food choices becomes just another competing piece of media noise to tune out.

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Health and Physical Education also emphasizes healthy relationships, which, unlike healthy eating is more clearly defined.

 A safe and supportive social environment in a school is founded on healthy relationships – the relationships between students, between students and adults, and between adults. Healthy relationships are based on respect, caring, empathy, trust, and dignity, and thrive in an environment in which diversity is honoured and accepted. Healthy relationships do not tolerate abusive, controlling, violent, bullying/harassing, or other inappropriate behaviours. To experience themselves as valued and connected members of an inclusive social environment, students need to be involved in healthy relationships with their peers, teachers, and other members of the school community. (p 65-66)

A clear definition of what makes a relationship healthy provides us with the ability to measure how healthy a relationship is. The child who asks a crying classmate if he’s okay is demonstrating ‘more’ empathy than the child who teases his classmate for crying. How do we measure the healthy of eating between the child who throws away the banana he brought in his lunch against the child who eats a ham and cheese sandwich? What makes the large portion of pasta brought by a food insecure child less or more healthy than the child whose diet has been restricted to only raw fruits and vegetables by a parent with an eating disorder? Grade two students are taught that a healthy lunch “has rice from the grain products group, a piece of chicken from the meat and alternatives group, and carrots from the vegetables and fruit group. There are cookies for dessert. If there were also a piece of fruit, or yogurt from the milk and alternatives group, it would be even healthier.” (p108) Healthier than respecting a child’s appetite? Healthier than bringing a school approved lunch but not being able to manage the textures? The student’s relationship with food is completely absent.  Grade four students are encouraged to accomplish a healthy eating goal “by talking with my family about healthy eating, learning how to cook simple meals, and helping with making my lunch.” (p. 142) It’s curious wording that ignores the research supporting the benefits of having family meals. Trust and respect for a parent’s ability to nourish their own children with food is lacking when nine-year old children are expected to educate their parents on what they learned about healthy eating at school.

We need to base our opinions of people on who they are and what they do and not judge them by their appearance or make assumptions about them. There are also negative stereotypes about people who receive extra help or people who receive good marks in class. These can be hurtful and cause people to avoid getting help when they need it or, sometimes, to hide their abilities. Someone who has a mental illness like depression or an anxiety disorder may be seen as being different. We need to remember that mental illness can affect anyone, and it can be treated. Cultural stereotypes are also common. Sometimes people make assumptions that people from a certain cultural background all like the same things or are all good at the same things. That makes us misjudge them. To change stereotypes, we need to get to know people and respond to them as individuals. We need to challenge stereotypes when we hear them. (p. 177)

Emphasis on the food neglects the benefits that result from sharing a respectful eating experience with peers. The criteria that defines healthy as a relationship is completely different from the behaviour school staff model around food. Announcing in front of a classroom of peers that the contents of a child’s lunch is not healthy enough to eat at school meets criteria for  abusive and harassing behaviour, and yes, this behaviour continues to be very much tolerated in Ontario classrooms – (and in schools around the world) – provided the behaviour occurs around food. Where is the emphasis on caring about whether children have enough to eat, empathy for a child’s eating ability, trust that children will eat as well as they can manage, treating children with dignity regardless of the food they eat, and respect for each child’s unique relationship with food? Healthy relationships don’t apply to food or to children around food in the safe and supportive educational environment that Ontario schools claim to be.

Instead, elementary school children are taught that guilt and shame are part of a healthy school lunch.

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One response to “Healthy Eating Curriculum: Is it?

  1. What a beautifully worded, thoughtful treatment of this difficult subject matter. Just brilliant.

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