Saturday, 2 June 2012

By your kids' lunchbox shall ye be known.

Last month a survey (by YouGov) revealed that 48% of teachers had seen children come into school hungry. Not just wanting a bag of crisps, hungry. (reported in the Independent, here)  Many parents reading this will be saying to themselves, "Nonsense! How can the teacher tell anyway?". Here is how. Teachers are very aware of how your child is fed. And how they eat. As parents, we all know how you can tell the blood sugar has dipped in your darling by these well trusted signs: lack of concentration, tantrums, sleepiness, whining. It's partly that.  Every teacher loves the mornings, in the main, as the kids (should) have had a breakfast, are awake, and ready to learn. But we can also sense when a child isn't fed enough breakfast by these all too frequent signs. These come from my own experience in both primary and secondary.

If a child is eating a bag of Quavers after being chucked out of the car, that's probably the breakfast.
If a child (we're talking primary here) eats not only their own fruit snack, but the leavings of others, they've not had breakfast. If they stare longingly at the snack bowl all morning until snack time, that's a clue.
If a child drinks their entire water bottle by 9am, and then again, that's either diabetes, or hunger.
If a child eats paper, that's either pica, or hunger.
If a child is given food by their mates, the mates know. 

Similarly, here are some sad lunchboxes i've seen.
One slice of bread. That's all.
A shrivelled satsuma.
A jar of gherkins and a slice of ham. 
Those biscuits you get given in hotels and cafes, wrapped.

Now, it's all too easy to think to yourself that these people are idiots. But often, they are not. They are working or non-working parents in debt, trouble, and poverty. Often, just getting the kids to school is a real effort, and it's one they make because at school, the child is warm ( then the radiators at home can be switched off) and fed. Of course, most of these families will be entitled to free school meals, and let me tell you, thank God for that. It's often the one meal a day they'll get that isn't nourishment poor. But many many children who need school meals don't get them, for a while initially, because of many reasons. The parents English may be poor, the paperwork and benefit entitlement isn't there yet, the wage is high enough to miss out on the meals, yet low enough to leave the family in poverty. That's why the continuation of free school meals for the needy is essential, the roll-out and publicising of them vital. The difference in a child who has eaten well, post lunch, is palpable. Similarly, the child who has eaten poorly at lunch, whether through lack of food or too plentiful a portion of hyping up sugary food, will be the teachers nightmare. So it's a simple case for affordable, available school dinners. By these means, kids get fed, kids get educated, and kids in need are flagged up. Because there is, as every teacher knows, a correlation between kids who eat poorly and kids who wear the same clothes all week, and have shoes with sellotape on. Getting the kids fed also gets them into the system whereby they get help.

And then there's the other end. The fat end. The kid is well dressed, in clothes a good 4 sizes bigger than everyone else. They're loved. Too loved. Here are some lunchboxes i've seen.

Chocolate spread sandwiches, chocolate biscuit, chocolate bar. Sweet drink.
4 rounds of white bread, stuffed with cheese and ham, 2 bags of crisps, chocolate biscuit, token satsuma.  For a 5 year old.
A cold kebab. Yes, really.

The government , this one and the last, worries about childhood obesity, as well they might. It linkes to adult diabetes, early onset diseases of varying ilk, and much cost to the NHS. I live in an area of high childhood obesity, and it's not nice to see kids of 5 waddle as they are dropped off at the school gate by their parents, in cars, looking like human duvets with eyes, squashed into the seats. Yes, the school rules say no  nuts and no fizzy drinks, but it takes a superhuman dinnerlady to wrestle a coke bottle from a screaming Chardonnay-Leanne. And to a certain extent, if the kid eats policed salad all day and then gets driven to the chip shop on the way home what's the point? I've had that kid in my form group. I've seen that kid in my childrens class. I've seen the child who can't physically get on the chair. The solution is not more PE. Fat kids don't like it, and it doesn't work. All it does is destroy their confidence. To my mind, it takes a strong school to enforce a healthy regime, and unfortunately, under this government, it's unlikely that schools will get the back up to do this, Gove having recently released all Free Schools and Academies from the Healthy Eating requirements, ( see here) the free market and possibility to get Burger King into school canteens being more important to him than health. Parents should brace themselves for school dinners in these schools to get worse, and more expensive. Which is shocking. Along we go to the American Way, with Coke sponsoring canteens and McDonalds flogging burgers in schools. And it could be so much better. I can only tell you how much I loved the changes in my own students once the school I taught at banned outside takeaways, students going out for lunch, emptied the snack machines, and revamped the canteen. The students moaned, and one of us had to be on Burger King duty for a while ("No. No. NO. Go back to school"), but they accepted it.

And then, there's the problem end. Any secondary teacher will be able to come up with at least one example of the girl who you catch throwing away her sandwiches, her lunch. The dim one I caught putting them in my bin. Repeatedly. As she shrank. Reported, sorted. The girls flushing their lunches, chucking their lunches, giving away their lunches. Fainting. Yes, I know she's putting some carefully artistically nibbled crusts back into the lunchbox, but she's NOT EATING. At least one case every year for my teaching career.

So, the teacher sees. But what can the teacher do? I had a fruit bowl, i'd sneak the needy apples and so on. I had a cereal bar collection in my drawer, on top of the collection of school shirts from Primark. I donated. I provided a shoulder for the waddling one who feared PE and left carefully placed leaflets for her, word in the ear for the Food Tech teacher and a slow process with Mum. I cranked the wheels of care into motion with the self-starving ones. I fretted. And now as a mum I fret. I argue the toss with daughter and refuse the Rolos until the tangerine is gone. I stuff son's lunchbox with the tuna and rye bread he loves, and allow a sugary yoghurt if the fruit is eaten. I negotiate and hope I don't give them a complex. I cook breakfasts (in my experience, the ten minutes longer it takes to whip up scrambled eggs is well worth it in terms of longer term morning nutrition) and demand they eat them. I know the teachers and dinner lady see it. I'm glad they do.

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