Monday, June 15, 2009

Thoughtful elementary students ignored in quest for healthier cafeteria.

This is not a happy story.

So roughly two weeks ago I received a series of emails from kids in a Canadian elementary school. The emails were sent to Health Canada as well as their school trustee, local papers and television as well as me (thanks kids!). The emails were quite straightforward.

You see the kids were concerned that the food being sold to them in their school cafeteria did not reflect the food they were taught to eat in class.

Here's a sampling of some of their concerns,

"I think that it is not fair that you guys talk about healthy things and then you put junk food in our school's cafeteria. There is no healthy food in our cafeteria, but only deep fried garbage food."

"We learned form our classes that we should not eat junk food too often, but I have to eat from the cafeteria because my mother works too much and has no time to cook for me. So, I want healthy foods served to me in my school."

"I don't find it sensible to learn repetitively in science and phys.ed class about healthy food choices and be served the exact opposite in our school cafeterias."

"I do not want to have angina or a heart attack in my early 20s because of the junk food in my school cafeteria. I do not have a variety to choose from. Many of this foods that are being served in my school's cafeteria are extremely unhealthy for us, so I want better and healthier choices in our cafeteria."

"We had study in our science textbook that we have to eat healthy, but our school cafeteria sells junk food to us. So what's the point for studying health and eat heathy, when the bell rings and all we can buy is unhealthy food?"

"I would REALLY appreciate if the cafeterias stops selling fried food, and sell some more healthy food like salad, which can actually HELP us grow, not destroy us."

"My school cafeteria and food dispenser machines offer DEEP FRIED French fries, baked pizza, DEEP FRIED burgers, DEEP FRIED potato chips, DEEP FRIED apple pies, DEEP FRIED beef patties, candy, cookies, muffins, and sodas. Help us help ourselves. What can you do for us? Is there any hope to see healthy food in schools?"
Great stuff right? Very valid concerns by real kids facing a real problem.

So what did the school do to these young activists? I was curious myself so I decided to follow up with the kids and ask them what happened.

Apparently the kids were given a private lecture where they were chastised, intimidated and shamed for what they'd done. They were told they were irresponsible for sending letters outside of the school; that their letters might cause the folks in the cafeteria to lose their jobs; and they were told that what they did was wrong. Here's one kid's words,
"We were reprimanded, even though they told us that we weren't in trouble. They were just "disappointed and upset" because we had not told them about this. We were very intimidated, and felt like we were being looked down upon, for having our opinions."
How sad is that? As if the school itself doesn't know what it's serving. Clearly the school was aware of what was being served and had they themselves cared the students would have already had healthy fare to choose from. And what kind of a lesson did the school just teach them - that they shouldn't question authority? That they shouldn't stand up for the causes they believe in?

School cafeterias certainly need to change, hopefully there will be more students like these elementary students who are willing to stand up and demand good nutrition.

Shame on everyone who gave those kids a hard time. As educators, you should know better. You not only owe those kids a healthy cafeteria, you owe them an apology.

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  1. That's really sad. It's a shame that public image was more important than listening to the students.

  2. Anonymous9:04 am

    After all the media hype that the younger generation will be the first one not to outlive their predecessors, why did these students get reprimanded for doing some advocacy work for their health? It must be all about profit margin for the cafeteria which is ridiculous. There are other ways to raise money for schools than selling junk.

  3. I am not surprised that the kids got knocked down for what they did in their efforts to get healthy food, but it is sad.

    I've experienced a very similar reaction when I tried to address a problem by sending messages outside the bounds of what the people immediately above me thought was proper after lesser efforts failed to gain traction.

    It's important to realize that the people who chastised, intimidated and shamed them are not evil people. They're perfectly normal people who reacted to slap down what they saw as a threat. If we react as if it were a question of good vs. evil no good will come of it -- only polarization.

    We need to find ways to support the kids in a way which confirms the importance of their request, repairs the damage done to them, and makes progress on providing them healthy food options, but which do not shame or threaten the teachers, administrators, cafeteria staff, etc.

    Yoni: if we write supportive letters to the children could you get them delivered?

    Does anyone know of a foundation or non-profit in their area with interests in encouraging healthy eating and/or local agriculture? Could they potentially be persuaded to provide funding, training to the cafeteria staff, fresh produce, etc. to help support them in moving in a healthier direction in a happy way?

  4. Absolutely Anne, if you'd like to send a letter on to me I'll happily pass it on to the kids.

  5. You're right, not a happy story. Not only did they learn that their school doesn't really care about the food that they serve, they learned that sticking up for something that you feel is right is a punishable offence. A quest for healthy living and a quest for the truth are certainly both things that public education should be working to instill in students of all ages.

  6. Ok, I sent a letter for the kids to your gmail account. I hope it helps them to feel better and more hopeful about all this.

  7. "Apparently the kids were given a private lecture where they were chastised, intimidated and shamed for what they'd done. They were told they were irresponsible for sending letters outside of the school; that their letters might cause the folks in the cafeteria to lose their jobs; and they were told that what they did was wrong."

    This is absolutely appalling. Has this story been picked up by any mainstream media outlets?

  8. Hi Stephanie, I don't believe so, though certainly local media is aware of at least the first bit of the story as the kids copied them on their emails as well as me.


  9. Now that it's a new school year, do you know if the school's cafeteria menu has been revamped as a result of the students' concerns?

  10. Hi Julie,

    Apparently there were some positive changes made last year immediately following some of the noise. Whether they've stayed in place, that I can't say.