I promised a series of posts answering this question: What are the problems facing South African education.
The latest is an article I wrote for one of the Catholic schools’ publications on what kids are eating at school and how it affects learning and teaching. Nutrition is not as profound as the language issue, for sure, but sometimes simple problems in education are refreshingly, well…simple.
As concerned educators, we often spend our time chipping away at complicated solutions to complicated problems. We should welcome the opportunity, then, to support simple changes that could make a big difference in the classroom. Some of our learners are attending class hyperactive and poorly nourished because of the food they are encouraged to buy at school. The quality of teaching and learning suffers as a result. The Catholic Schools community can make a positive difference by encouraging principals to regulate healthy and nutritious dining options at their schools.
I am using the term “food” loosely here. Take a look at the items sold during breaks at some of our schools and you would be reluctant to assign them such a moniker: frozen sugar-water, nursed from the torn corner of a Ziploc; hard sweets; licorice; chewing gum; cheese poofs; ice cream; potato crisps; and my favorite, a liquid concoction called Sippy Sherbet.
How do these items make it through the gates of one typical primary school in Soweto? The school itself no longer controls the tuck shop. Instead, six women set up tables in the school courtyard. Five of them peddle sweets; the sixth sells chips and sausages. Each pays R20 ($3) a month to the school—a total of R120 ($18) each month. That is all that the school gets in the arrangement, and in similar arrangements at other schools. The vendors take home their profits and teachers are left to deal with the consequences.
It is well known that highly processed sugars and an unbalanced diet negatively affect a child’s ability to attend to schoolwork, in addition to causing long-term health problems like Type 2 Diabetes. Most common sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup cause learners’ blood sugar levels to spike, inviting the inevitably unhealthy rise and fall of energy in the classroom. Catholic School teachers are already dealing with problems of class size, language diversity, limited resources and lack of athletics facilities. We cannot let poor diets further undermine their chance of success before class even begins!
So what can the Catholic Schools community do about the sweet-fest? The solution that I have heard expressed most often is to encourage parents to send their children to school with lunches instead of money. I am skeptical of this solution, after seeing too many bologna sandwiches meet their end in the dustbin. Anyway, changing parents is not our job. It is unfortunate that families do not always have the time to prepare a healthy lunch to send to school with their children, but that is out of our control.
We must control what is in our power to control by encouraging principles to demand that the peddlers who set foot in their houses of learning sell only nutritious and healthy foods. If they refuse, we must see them off the premises.
I don’t mean simply asking vendors to sell fruit alongside their sweets. Many children when given that choice will satisfy their sweet tooth before they think about nutritional value. Principals must ensure that children who arrive at their school with money to buy food will choose exclusively between healthy options.
“But these vendors are making a living,” I am told. So are our teachers, who are performing the most important task of all under already difficult circumstances. “But children won’t buy bananas,” I am told. They will buy bananas if that is what there is to buy. And they will also buy apples, and oranges, and sandwiches and salads. It is time for our principals to retake control of the tuck shop, and it is time for the rest of us to support them in doing so.
Encouraging children to eat well is not a new idea. Kids that eat well learn well. We cannot leave it to children to decide whether to eat a salad or a Sippy Sherbet. That is the responsibility that comes with being a school. Principals may feel unpopular or unable to make such a change, but it is theirs to make. Write a letter of support, or make a call to your Catholic Schools office, and let us stand behind and encourage schools to give all of our learners a better shot at success.