Food: it’s the real thing

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     Why don’t we feed healthier meals to our children

    As educators, our job is to create good outcomes for the young people who come into our care. We focus on qualifications, the ability to work, social skills, good health and how to become independent, active citizens who can maintain positive relationships. Quite right too.

    The good health part of the above list often relates to physical exercise, mental wellbeing and, increasingly, obesity and diet; I think it should go even further and prioritise exactly what our children consume and their perceptions of what is healthy.

    Sometimes, there are poor outcomes with regard to what our young people eat and drink, and their attitudes about what is good for them. As a sector we could do better if we were braver and more radical in our approach to food.

    Some GR-R-Rreat practice

    There is obviously some amazing practice out there. There are outstanding food lessons; inspiring land-based projects; amazing farming, horticultural and similar partnerships that lead to accreditation, jobs and longstanding engagement, enjoyment and pride; there are amazing care and health plans that lay down individual arrangements for children with a range of conditions, allergies and intolerances that staff put huge amounts of time and effort into.

    Some personal, social and health education and citizenship programs are brilliant in this regard, and good key working in this area achieves a huge amount. But I think we could improve.

    What is healthy change

    One difficulty is that it is hard to work out what actually is healthy, as even expert opinion seems to change constantly. It’s tough to keep up.

    There are also lots of competing opinions. Try running an internet search on “diets for special needs”, for example, and you’ll get some idea of the scope and variety there is, and the difficulties inherent in choosing what may be the most appropriate for you.

    It’s hard to get it right. There is so much evidence that strongly suggests links between behaviour, autism and so many other diagnoses. It’s impossible to ignore all of those findings even if you disagree with some of the wackier-sounding ones. Although it isn’t so much that we are ignoring them, it’s more that we aren’t radical enough in implementing substantively different diets and regimes and then monitoring the results. How many schools have stopped using sugar? How many ban the more awful fats? How many serve processed food, or meat with unclear provenance? It is possible to take risks; I know a school in Hertfordshire that is vegetarian, for example, and there are lots of examples of services that eat their own produce that is grown on site.

    There may be many great plans for individuals out there being used for young people’s food and drink intake, but there are also lots that include takeaways and all kinds of “rewards” and “treats”. I’m not advocating taking the joy out of what we do with food – far from it – but more of our educative work should be about encouraging our service users to reject unhealthy lifestyles and exploring how to do this in a wholly positive way. As usual, this is more about senior leaders than front-line workers.

    If we don’t step up our radical interventions, we increase the vulnerability of those most at risk; I read recently that a safeguarding referral was made on the parent of an obese young child purely on that basis. Perhaps something around the use of food will be explicitly listed as a form of abuse in future versions of safeguarding training.

    In another, darker corner of this debate, eating disorders may be rising according to some figures, most noticeably in boys. So this issue is central both in health and in education; it affects our children’s all round quality of life.

    Not a vessel to be filled

    A lot of people know the saying from Plutarch about the mind not being “a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit,” but is it possible that we are making the same kind of error with our bodies, treating them too much like a vessel to be filled or worse, substituting good sustenance for the wrong kind of comfort and gratification?

    Why do we behave in this way when we know that some things that we give children are quite simply not good for them? Will the choices about food and about ingredients that we have made be judged in a very harsh light in the future, to the extent that we may be accused by our successors of doing actual harm to these children that are in our care? Are we guilty of not being progressive enough, of lazy thinking and of complacent practice?

    In the news

    You would quite simply have to be not paying attention to have missed the debates raging in all forms of media currently about diet in general and topics such as sugar and fat in particular. Opinions abound about going sugar-free, sugar versus fat, obesity, diabetes, take-aways near schools, lack of exercise and a host of other food-related issues. Everyone is talking about food, which is a good thing.

    So why, in the main, do we feed our children mostly what we have fed them before? Of course, I accept that some things may be a bit better than before – we use a few new cooking techniques, there’s a bit more awareness about food and we at least understand the importance of five-a-day – but these feel to me like tweaks rather than radical changes.

    “To find fault is easy; to do better may be difficult” – another Plutarch saying – may be the retort of choice for the under-fire professional, but we need to think much more about the effects of, and our relationship to, what we put into our mouths. We also need to be careful about how we pass all the fruits of this great debate on to the next generation, particularly those who are vulnerable and have specific needs that are making life difficult for them. After all, that is our job, isn’t it?

    Further information

    Dr John Steward is Operations Director for Priory Education Services:
    www.priorygroup.com

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