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Food for Thought

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 10:59
Food being served at a potluck lunch.

How Ontario Schools Can Help Kids Make Good Food Choices

March is Nutrition Month and dietitians across Canada are reminding us that good food choices are vital to our health and well-being. This year’s theme is ‘Get the Real Deal on Your Meal’ and the focus is on busting popular food and nutrition myths. It couldn’t be more fitting for Ontario schools!

We live in a society that sets unrealistic standards for body weight. Television and print ads about ‘miracle’ diets abound. ‘Low fat,’ ‘no fat’ and ‘calorie-reduced’ labels line grocery store shelves... but what do they really mean? Now, more than ever, students need reliable nutrition information, and with a wealth of health-related programs and initiatives at their disposal, Ontario’s educators are in a unique position to deliver it.

How can educators help?

One in four Canadian children is overweight or obese. The links between poor food choices and diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses have been well established. Furthermore, as educators, we know that children’s physical health is only part of what’s at stake. Study after study has shown that healthy students are better learners. They have better classroom attendance and fewer behavioural problems. They also display increased self esteem, positive mental health and are better able to form social connections. Putting aside the cookies and reaching for the fruit bowl should be a no-brainer and, yet, even as adults, we find ourselves struggling to make healthy food choices on a daily basis. Part of this has to do with a lack of information, but another reason we often fail to eat right is that our environments simply aren’t set up to help us choose wisely. Luckily, Ontario educators can use the many tools at their disposal to help students in both these regards. These include the revised Health and Physical Education Curriculum (grades 1–8), the School Food and Beverage Policy, and the Ministry of Education’s Healthy Schools Recognition Program. Educators can also turn to a variety of concerned community partners who are ready and able to help deliver the information and support students need to make positive nutrition choices.

Giving Students the Facts on Food

Before they can choose to eat right, students need to know what healthy eating entails—but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. They also need to develop critical thinking skills that will allow them to consider how the media, their peers and others influence their food choices, as well as personal skills to help them listen to their bodies and take charge of food decisions. The revised Health and Physical Education Curriculum (and the support available to implement it) is a key tool for helping educators to instill these skills and this knowledge in students.

The Revised H&PE Curriculum, Healthy Living Strand

In 2010, the Ministry of Education released a new elementary Health and Physical Education Curriculum. It takes a comprehensive approach to addressing a range of topics, including healthy eating (which falls under Healthy Living—one of three strands). In the junior grades this learning involves giving kids practical food-related information they can use to make healthy choices. For example, in grade 5, students learn how to apply critical thinking when examining nutritional labels while, in the intermediate grades the lessons build on this knowledge by asking them to apply their understanding of nutritional concepts to a variety of community settings. “They begin to appreciate the relationship between nutrition and disease,” says Brad Strong, a Health and Physical Education teacher at Henry Munro Middle School in Gloucester, Ontario. “And they start to recognize the long-term impact of unhealthy food choices and become more adept at managing their own food intake.”

The Living Skills

In addition to its three strands, the curriculum also features an over-arching set of expectations called the Living Skills. These are the personal, interpersonal, and critical and creative thinking skills that make the learning in health and physical education personally relevant to students. “Students learn to think critically about what factors influence the decisions they make about eating and food selection—whether it’s peers, parents or the media,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant. “They also develop personal skills by recognizing internal cues which necessitate the desire to eat or drink, such as growth spurts, stress and physical activity levels.” Rather than simply telling them what’s healthy and what’s not, learning through the living skills expectations equips students to weigh information, identify their personal needs and make their own healthy choices. Not only does it teach important life skills, but it also involves students in ongoing discussions about health topics—something which allows educators to maintain a flexible and balanced approach, addressing student concerns and adapting the program to meet individual needs. After all, especially when it comes to food, what works for one person or family may not work for another. Educators need to remain cognisant of the fact that students have variable amounts of control over the food they eat at home and the food they bring to school, and must also consider realities such as poverty, food allergies and sensitivities, and cultural practices. Avoiding thinking about nutrition in rigid ways and imposing strict “food rules” can also reduce potential triggers for body image concerns or eating disorders.

Curriculum Support is Available

There’s no question, healthy eating is often a tricky topic to address! Educators who need support can find it in Ophea’s Curriculum Support Documents—an online resource that includes lessons that address healthy eating and are directly linked to curriculum expectations, including the living skills. “At Ophea we understand that the skills learned in the classroom, such as critical thinking, self awareness and self-monitoring are crucial for helping students to make healthy food choices in their daily lives,” says Gardner. “Lesson activities are also designed to take advantage of a variety of teaching strategies which will engage different types of learners,” adds Strong.

Setting up a Healthy Environment

While giving students the facts and equipping them with critical thinking and self-monitoring skills is vital, if our school environments and larger communities don’t support and reflect what’s being taught, our messages about healthy eating aren’t likely to carry much weight.

The School Food and Beverage Policy

“Schools have a responsibility to model healthy eating habits,” says Strong. Luckily, the School Food and Beverage Policy, which took effect in September 2011, is providing them with strong guidelines for doing just that. The policy includes nutrition standards for food and beverages sold in schools and embodies the principles of healthy eating outlined in Canada’s Food Guide. It ensure that 100% of the foods sold on a day-to-day basis in Ontario’s publicly funded schools have high levels of essential nutrients and lower levels of fat, sugar and/or sodium. “Schools can make the most of the policy by embracing it,” says Susan Hall, a secondary school public health nurse with the City of Hamilton’s Public Health Services. “This means providing and selling healthy foods as the only option, using non-food rewards, teaching students and staff healthy delicious recipes, making parents aware of the policy and sharing recipes and healthy food tips in newsletters.”

Working with Community Partners

If our goal is to create a lasting change in our students’ eating habits, we need to recognize that we cannot possibly do it alone. What students learn about healthy eating at school needs to be reflected in the larger community, and the best way to help make this happen is to reach out and make everyone part of the solution. Public health units are a great place to start when looking to form partnerships. In fact, the Ontario Public Health Standards (2008) require public health professionals to work with schools and school boards. Using a comprehensive health promotion approach, a school’s local public health nurse can deliver programs that are directly linked to the curriculum and address the topics of healthy eating and healthy weights. And, while they’re a wonderful resource for up-to-date health and nutrition knowledge, Public health nurses are also just the beginning. “Parents, grandparents and church groups can help to run nutrition programs,” suggests Hall. “Farmers or chefs can talk to students about locally grown food. Grocery store managers can teach them about where food comes from and how to read labels. Dietitians can address Canada’s Food Guide and offer other educational resources. In Hamilton,” she adds, “athletes such as the Tiger-Cats players visit schools to promote healthy, active lifestyles.” Furthermore, organizations like the Breakfast Clubs of Canada, the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Egg Farmers of Canada can help to bring healthy foods and education programs into schools.

Celebrating Your Successes

Schools can also further develop a supportive environment by participating in the Ministry of Education’s Healthy Schools Recognition Program, which promotes and celebrates healthy behaviours and practices in Ontario's schools. To participate, schools pledge to take on a healthy activity. They can do this by starting a new activity or by building on an existing one. The Premier and the Minister of Education recognize participating schools with a certificate and pennant, and a list of healthy schools is posted on the Ministry of Education's website. It’s a great way to celebrate your school’s successes while raising your profile in the community and generating excitement among students. To learn more visit the Healthy Schools Recognition Program webpage .

Setting Students up for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating

While you may still be hard-pressed to find a student who claims to prefer a healthy bowl of vegetable soup to a slice of greasy pizza, it’s important to remember that big changes happen in small steps, and that helping students to make the shift to healthier food choices doesn’t need to feel like a punishment or a sacrifice. “Shaming kids about their current food choices will not be an effective strategy for change,” says Strong. “We need to keep it positive.” By using the revised H&PE curriculum as a starting point, creating a supportive environment through initiatives like the School Food and Beverage Policy and Healthy Schools Recognition Program, and accessing the wealth of community resources that are available, schools can create a culture that not only embraces healthy choices as the new norm, but that does it in a way that kids will want to get on board with. “Sometimes exposing kids to healthy food choices will help them to realize that healthier food choices can be just as enjoyable as unhealthier choices,” says Strong. When we give students ‘the real deal’ on nutrition information, and equip them with the skills they’ll need to make good decisions for life, we’re much more likely to foster a generation that grows up not only eating healthy foods at school because that’s what’s available, but that eats right at home and out in the community, too, because they understand why it’s important and recognize that it makes them feel good.