Eating & Drinking

FOOD FIGHT: A shocking lesson on how lunchtime is governed in Ontario schools

This story appears in the April edition of Ottawa Magazine. Click here to order the back issue or an online edition

By Shawna Wagman

“Why didn’t you eat your carrots?” I ask my daughter as I unpack the soggy leftovers from her lunch box after school. She shrugs, not bothering to feign shame. She says that there wasn’t enough time. And that all the other kids have fruit bars, cheese strings, and tubes of yogourt. It’s the age-old battle between parents and kids who won’t eat their vegetables, and I’m reminded that it boils down to control. Those slimy cucumbers have a way of shouting, “You are not the boss of me!”

Illustration by Graham Ross.

So I get it: the lunch box is fraught. How could it not be? The proverbial brown bag has been replaced by high-tech phthalate- and lead-free insulated carriers. It’s filled with more than crustless sandwiches and mini-muffins. School lunches are packed with politics, exposing how we react to the pressures of busy lives, long commutes, and the allure of cheap processed foods.

For parents, packing lunch is a daunting daily task, a test of personal fortitude. Like a demon disguised as a yogourt tube, it stares me down each morning as I struggle to match lids to containers and come up with a temperature-controlled, litterless, nut-free, allergy-sensitive, non-leaking, yummy yet nutritious portable picnic. I try not to beat myself up when the occasional nutritionally void Goldfish cracker swims into the box. I’ll do better tomorrow, I tell myself. Maybe I’ll try carving the cucumbers into little bunnies like the ones I saw on a Mommy blog.

Instead, I revert to the typical parental defence: polite begging. “C’mon! You need to eat your healthies,” I tell my daughter, adopting the nickname she uses for fruits and vegetables. But as I watch the compost pile up with oxidized apple slices, I wonder if the term “healthies” might be part of the problem. I consider what it means for kids to grow up in a society where the value of food is experienced in terms of individual nutrients. Instead of yogourt, it’s a fat-free dairy product with calcium and vitamin D. We all talk like junior dietitians.

What I really want to say is: I hate playing games with food. Don’t force me to carve up what we eat into good and evil — the so-called “healthies” versus what she calls “less healthies,” usually referring to total junk. I want to say: Let’s not make lunch a battleground.

It’s probably too late. Lunch is already under attack in our schools. And the food we pack is the tip of the iceberg. Before my daughter started Grade 1, I had no clue there were policies dictating what and when kids can eat and drink at Ontario schools. Nor did I realize that the majority of elementary schools in Canada don’t have kitchens or cafeteria space. To tell the truth, I hadn’t given much thought at all to how kids actually eat at school. But that all changed when I volunteered to be the Pizza Lady.


Why, you might wonder, would I take on the thankless role of Pizza Lady at my daughter’s elementary school? Who would willingly volunteer to coordinate twice-monthly pizza lunches for 350 kids? Suffice it to say, I’m not one of those crafty or cupcake-baking moms, nor am I the type to teach kids about the environment or help them dig up a school garden. I do love pizza, though. So of all the volunteer opportunities at my kid’s school, I gravitated to helping carry on the pizza lunch tradition. Call it PTLD (Post-Traumatic Lunchbox Disorder), but I had visions of giving kids a break from the daily drudgery of WowButter sandwiches, presiding over a handful of
exciting communal hot lunches they could share with their friends.

Perhaps my romanticizing of pizza days as meaningful social events was a way to justify my sacrifice, but the sheen on my enthusiasm quickly wore off. Pizza lunches, like school bake sales, are a major fundraising initiative, helping the school council pay for everything from class trips to books to playground equipment. At my daughter’s school, pizza lunches bring in almost $4,000 a year.

It’s amazing how quickly one gets an education in the many complexities of the primary-school lunch while commandeering an army of prepubescent volunteers on pizza day. For instance, the fact that lunch is eaten in the classroom and lasts just 20 minutes becomes even more real when you’re running up and down several flights of stairs carrying hot pizzas (55 in total) to 18 different classrooms on four different floors and calling out the names in each class until all 400 slices are distributed.

On my first pizza day, I was paralyzed by the knowledge that every additional minute it took me to get a slice of pizza into the hands of a hungry kid was one less minute they would have to eat their lunch. Adding to the time pressure at my daughter’s school — and presumably any school where kids are in portable classrooms — is that those students have to go inside the school to eat. Otherwise, I’m told, there would be no adult supervision, since teachers take a lunch break at the same time as students. The portable-dwelling kids filter into the school’s stuffy lunchroom in the basement, where they are packed around too few tables during the 20-minute break. Since they won’t have an opportunity to return to their classrooms after lunch, and because of the strict time limit, the kids arrive fully dressed in their soggy snowsuits and dripping boots in winter, which means they are gobbling down food while overheating. I confess I was shocked to see Grade 6 lunch monitors charged with controlling the inevitable chaos of the antsy younger kids once unleashed from the watch of adults.

I’m not sure why any of these details surprised me. I guess I had envisioned an adult-monitored lunchroom for all kids (even if they ate in shifts), separate from where they study, and I imagined they could take as much time, within reason, as they needed to eat. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying our schools are forcing kids to wolf down food while wearing their coats and then shoving them out the door for recess because they’re sadistic or uncaring. Schools face very real logistical issues such as overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and the problem I just described of staffing over the lunch hour.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, is that many kids don’t like the pizza. The logistics alone make it impossible to consider any toppings, so perish the thought of pepperoni; it’s plain cheese pizza for everyone. Add to that the government’s new nutrition standards, put into effect in September 2011, which mandate lower-fat cheese and whole-wheat crusts on all pizzas served in schools, giving them a taste and texture unfamiliar to most kids. And to make matters even worse, lower-fat cheese is often much saltier because taking out the fat renders it flavourless. (I ate a slice and was thirsty for two days.) As a result, countless half-eaten pizza slices go home wrapped in napkins inside kids’ lunch boxes because of yet another rule: all lunches must be litterless. Throwing out food is strictly forbidden at many schools.

When I told the principal I was interested in looking for a better pizza vendor, she smiled sympathetically and gave me the list of board-approved food providers. Then she loaned me her copy of the “Ontario School Food and Beverage Policy.” I cracked open the colourful spiral-bound document and read about Ontario’s commitment to making schools healthier places for learning. On the page illustrated with photographs of a granola bar, a carton of one percent milk, and three glistening apples, I learned that the policy applies to all food and beverages sold in cafeterias, vending machines, and tuck shops; at all sports events and bake sales; and through all catered lunch programs, including pizza lunch. It does not apply, however, to food brought from home. So there’s the wrinkle.

With all the research that links good nutrition and good learning, it’s no wonder that educators are looking for ways to get good food into kids’ bodies so that they stay awake, stay seated, and gobble up the curriculum. That’s precisely why schools around the world have national school meal programs. In fact, every G8 country except Canada has one. Grade-school children from the United States to France to Italy have access to some form of sustenance — either free or subsidized — during each day of study. In Japan, school lunches are made from scratch daily — a point of national pride, along with its low rates of child obesity. Not so in this country, where non-profits fill the gap with milk, snack, and lunch programs and kids rely overwhelmingly on food from their lunch boxes.

The Ontario government finds itself in the awkward position of getting into the nutrition business without offering its own lunch program. For starters, that means thinking outside the lunch box. So far, the best it has come up with is the introduction of the balanced school day, a new way to structure the students’ day that has been all the rage in Ontario since two schools northwest of Toronto piloted the concept several years ago. The idea is to offer two nutrition breaks (usually 20-minute breaks for eating followed by 20 minutes for recess), one mid-morning and one early afternoon. The two mini-meals replace traditional snack times and the lunch hour — you know, the one that is observed around the world, in almost every culture, about mid-day.

Many teachers and parents have been seduced by arguments extolling the benefits of eliminating lunch, and local schools are overwhelmingly volunteering to adopt it. This in spite of the fact that the effectiveness of a balanced day has yet to be proven. Still, it all makes sense on paper. Advocates claim that this type of schedule offers more time for learning, better nutrition for kids, and decreased discipline problems, since, presumably, the two meals mean kids are less hungry and therefore less irritable. They also have less opportunity to get into trouble (blocks of playtime are limited to 20 minutes). Perhaps, above all, it makes everyone feel good — who could argue against feeding kids who are hungry and helping kids learn?

But I can’t help wondering what happens to a generation that grows up without lunch. These are the same kids who will have greater literacy about the merits of protein versus carbs and the need to avoid peanuts or gluten while having very little experience sharing food with friends, trying new tastes, or taking pleasure in learning to eat well. So although the government has pledged to make schools healthier places, perhaps its policies are inadvertently educating kids right into unhealthy relationships with food. What if we are creating Generation Indigestion?

The move toward downsizing and deconstructing school lunches coincides with the trend to hyper-individualization that I’m seeing in food culture at large — the shift toward tapas and small-plate concepts in restaurants, as well as miniaturization of things like cupcakes and single-serving pod coffee makers. What are the consequences of a generation of kids who experience meals as bite-sized, easy-to-eat, compartmentalized finger foods that are entirely customized to their preferences? I think we already know the answer: just look at their parents, guzzling fat-free Frappuccinos and fast-food lunches in their cubicles, brushing crumbs off their keyboards while working right through their lunch breaks. It’s a window into what happens when we treat eating as a distraction rather than an essential,
sacred social and cultural ritual.

I may be alone in my crusade to save lunch from going the way of the dodo, but my experience as a mom and a Pizza Lady has taught me that no food is healthy unless it is eaten. How am I helping my daughter learn to eat well when she sees how much stress is caused by a carrot? We need to move toward looking at lunch as part of the learning experience instead of a break from it. Until then, we may be on the road to building a nation of picky, wasteful, selfish, food-fearing speed eaters. I consider myself lucky that my daughter’s school has rejected the balanced schedule so far, but I know it’s only a matter of time until her lunch will be on the chopping block.