It’s time to cherish and nourish all children equally
In less than two centuries, Ireland has gone from famine to feast. The overconsumption of unhealthy foods has led to an obesity epidemic that threatens the next generation with a lifetime of diet-related diseases. As a nation whose constitution promises to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’, how are we to stop the spread?
The Irish Food Writers’ Guild (IFWG) would like to see the government:
- Provide better and more consistent food education in schools.
- Highlight the role that better eating plays in everyone’s health, well-being and quality of life.
- Empower citizens to make informed choices.
The IFWG also believes that:
- Cooking and growing skills should be embedded in education from primary level onwards.
- Taste workshops and simple growing programmes should be introduced across all primary schools.
- The current curriculum of the Home Economics programme is in need of an overhaul to amend outdated food and nutrition information.
- Any corporate association with schools in relation to food should be avoided.
- Interdepartmental, joined-up thinking on food and food life skills is urgently needed.
Below is a brief overview of the challenges and potential solutions accompanied by a list of resources and references to further reading. We hope this will be of use in schools and at home to support and supplement learning, and to journalists and editors exploring this area.
While food education has improved, critical thinking skills and cooking experience are lacking. Most young people know that they need to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and that processed and sugary foods aren’t good for them, yet childhood obesity levels continue to rise in tandem with a decline in kitchen skills, an increase in food scares and an often conflicting array of health claims about foods.
Happily, numerous initiatives already exist, but their reach and effectiveness vary. At primary level, food education happens through the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and includes a range of programmes. The primary curriculum also ensures that children are taught about regular exercise and making wise food choices for a healthy and balanced diet.
But this is not enough. Primary and secondary schools must become more actively engaged in promoting the importance of healthy lifestyles, including providing children with the necessary skills to choose fresh, nutritious, wholesome food. Likewise, parents and guardians must be supported further in navigating these choices and accessing appropriate food.
Through nutrition education and a healthy food environment, schools can impart life-long skills for healthy eating and help give children the best start in life. A school food policy (or lack thereof) directly affects students’ health, learning and lifetime wellness. Many schools have healthy lunch policies, but the IFWG would like to see all schools adopt such a policy and for that policy to be supported by broader national policy.
Given the complexity of the issue and the range of policy domains across which it intersects, there is a need for the government and schools to provide coherent guidance on this urgent matter. A successful initiative needs to be set within a national framework, which will ensure policy coherence. A steering committee should comprise all relevant stakeholders, including appropriate government departments (education, health, agriculture, environment, social and family affairs), statutory bodies, farming organisations, teachers’ unions and community and voluntary organisations.
The costs associated with the implementation of such an initiative must be viewed in the context of the high and ever-rising costs of inaction and the benefits that will accrue from making a lasting, positive contribution to the health and welfare of our nation’s children. This initiative could be integrated into existing educational programmes, such as the SPHE programme, or the new 100-hour course developed as part of the new Junior Cycle by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to address the importance of food and diet in making healthy lifestyle choices.
Food skills are among the most valuable life skills you can learn. Every child should learn about food – where it comes from and how to grow it, how to cook it and how it affects their health.
Guild chairperson Aoife Carrigy says, ‘On this centenary anniversary of the Easter 1916 rising, the Guild encourages the state to deliver on its constitutional promise to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” in the context of childhood nutrition and food education, from mandatory nutrition education to hands-on programmes where children can touch and taste food. We cannot leave the critical task of teaching nutrition to our children to chance.’
There is a variety of material regarding food and nutrition that can be used in schools and at home to support and supplement learning.
- Eatright: A programme developed by Safefood and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland targeted at early school leavers that emphasises the fundamentals of healthy eating and how to decipher food labels. www.eatright.eu
- Family Farm at Dublin Zoo: As part of the Incredible Edibles programme, Agri Aware grow fruit and vegetables in Family Farm at Dublin Zoo, where they also run Dairy Week, Strawberry Week and a Potato Weekend over the summer months as well as daily milking demonstrations. http://thefamilyfarm.ie/about-us
- Food Dudes: An optional primary school programme that encourages children to eat more fruit and vegetables at home and at school. It’s managed by Bord Bia and supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the European Union through the School Fruit Scheme. www.fooddudes.ie
- Fuel Your Body: Developed by Safefood in partnership with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (the professional body for accredited dieticians and clinical nutritionists in Ireland), this leaflet provides practical information to students on healthy eating and how to incorporate food into regular training routines. www.safefood.eu/Publications/Consumer-info/Fuel-your-body-for-the-teenage-sports-person.aspx
- GIY Sow & Grow: A campaign for schools to help children experience food growing for themselves in the classroom environment, designed so that every school can get involved regardless of how much space they have or whether the teaching staff have expertise around food growing. Evidence shows that growing food leads to better health, improved diets and increased knowledge about nutrition. www.giyinternational.org/sowandgrow
- Healthy lunchboxes: Last year, the IFWG created a resource with plenty of ideas for healthy lunches for school lunchboxes. www.irishfoodwritersguild.ie/school-lunches.html
- How They Measure Up: A resource providing students with information on nutrients, food additives and the food pyramid as well as a better understanding of food labels to help them make informed and healthy choices about food. This is one of the few resources that helps to develop critical thinking in relation to health literacy, encouraging students to look at what is – and what is not – stated on the labels and how foods are marketed or promoted. More than 550 secondary schools have used this resource. www.safefood.eu/education
- Incredible Edibles: An award-winning project from Agri Aware that provides primary school children with the resources to grow their own vegetable gardens. It also includes lessons on food origins, the importance of fruit and vegetables (including potatoes) for a healthy diet and how to prepare and cook them. (See also Family Farm above.) www.incredibleedibles.ie
- Little Steps: A campaign for healthy eating that aims to support parents and guardians as positive role models for their children by showing that making small changes to food habits and physical activity (‘little steps’) can have a big impact over time. Developed by Safefood and the Health Service Executive (HSE) in consultation with a wide range of nutrition and physical activity professionals. www.littlesteps.eu
- Living Classroom: A partnership programme between three organisations (Bord Bia, GIY and SEED) that share a common goal to see a school garden or ‘living classroom’ in every school in Ireland. www.giyinternational.org/living_classroom
- Tastebuds: An interactive teaching resource for 8–10-year-olds about the origins of the food we eat, how to have a balanced diet and the importance of healthy eating and exercise. Delivered as part of the Social, Personal and Health Education curriculum across eight 30–40-minute sessions. www.safefood.eu/tastebuds.aspx
- The Future Is Food: A Transition Year Unit developed by the Taste Council in collaboration with Bord Bia, educators, food producers, food professionals and chefs. It helps student to gain a better understanding of the Irish artisan food sector as well as the wider food industry, encouraging them to consider a career in food while learning how their food is produced. www.futureisfood.ie
- The Good Practice Guide for School Food Initiatives: A guide for schools developed by Healthy Food For All to help develop their food policy, including how to set up a school food initiative such as breakfast clubs, food-growing projects, school lunches and nutrition education programmes, how to carry out a needs assessment and how to connect food to physical education, environmental awareness and other parts of the curriculum. www.healthyfoodforall.com/schools
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES
- Healthy Food For All list of School Resources: A useful list of resources available to schools relating to healthy eating and nutrition. http://healthyfoodforall.com/schools/school-resources
- Long-term effects of prenatal diet: Irish Times article by Guild chairperson Aoife Carrigy on how the diet a foetus is exposed to can affect how the child develops into adulthood, and specifically their predisposition for developing diet-related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/pregnancy-nutrition-and-why-you-are-what-your-mother-eats-1.2154212
- Long-term effects of nutritionally shallow diets: Article by Guild member Ross Golden-Bannon for The Journal on the combination of short-, medium- and long-term policies and interdepartmental thinking required to deal with the long-term costs of malnourishment. www.thejournal.ie/readme/diets-health-hospital-2548303-Jan2016/
- Food and education: Article by Guild member Ross Golden-Bannon for The Journal on thinking outside the box when it comes to food education. http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/food-education-children-2654021-Mar2016/
Note to editors: This document is a condensed version of a comprehensive summation written by Guild member Anne Marie Carroll, which is available on request.