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Column: Reforming our relationship with food can start in schools

Bodily wellbeing is a neglected subject in schools, writes UCD lecturer Frank Armstrong, even when it is a prime training ground for encouraging healthy lifelong habits.

Frank Armstrong

SOCRATES: I’ll be judged the way a doctor would be, when prosecuted by a manufacturer of sweet-treats before a jury of young children – Plato, Gorgias 521e

Ireland can expect a 72 per cent rise in the incidence of cancer by 2030 according to the WHO. That news item foretells suffering and death for thousands and great expense to purses public and private. It is being put down to an ageing population but we can do more to avert it, beginning in our schools.

You will never know ‘the time nor the place’ it is wearily said. Often one hears stories like: ‘I had an uncle who smoked for eighty years, drank whisky to beat the band and never touched a vegetable but lived, hale and hearty, into his nineties’. That kind of anecdote which implicitly sees health and longevity as the pure expression of genetics, or determined by celestial forces, is often thrown in the face of anyone advocating disease prevention through nutritional and other lifestyle choices.

But the extent to which average life expectancy has increased over the past 200 years across the Western world from about 35 to nearly 80 years of age exposes that fallacy. There is a discernible absence of joined-up thinking in this country. In our education system the measure of success we use, almost exclusively, is academic performance based on test scores. But that measurement disregards another important aspect of an education experience: bodily health.

Having taught previously in secondary schools I am keenly aware that students habitually consume food that will do them serious harm in later life and undoubtedly affects their powers of concentration. I recall one north Dublin school in a disadvantaged area where the canteen consisted of a dispensary for boiling water which would be poured into plastic containers containing dehydrated dried noodles. At least the noodles were not as bad as the chocolate and crisps that seemed to constitute the remainder of the kids’ diet. The Turkey Twizzlers that so outraged Jamie Oliver in his School Dinners series would probably have been an improvement.

In another South Dublin fee-paying school lunches didn’t figure prominently either, with most students bringing their own. Many of them, presumably, replacing lovingly prepared sandwiches for gunge purchased at the prosperous sweet shops that flanked the school.

There is a curious lack of emphasis in Ireland on school lunches, even compared to the UK, despite the vast sums now spent on education. Where they are available, cooks are usually seen as a menial, peripheral figures rather than vital components of any organisation.

Reforming students’ relationship with food is best way to address predicted cancer and obesity rise

Food, and all that it entails, should be given much more importance in the education system and our wider lives. Reforming that relationship would be the best way to address the predicted cancers and reducing obesity. We might even score better in tests! Parts of school grounds could be dedicated to fruit- and vegetable-growing as is now occurring in some far-sighted schools. It would come at the expense of a few sports field but Ireland is not short of space, even in urban areas.

Local councils could allow unproductive green spaces to become allotments for city centre schools. Horticulture can be integrated with the study of science. Engineering skills can be honed constructing glass structures to trap light for sun-loving plants. The wonder of photosynthesis can be demonstrated by a real-life plant and not just with a puzzling diagram. The carbon offset of food grown and consumed in the same location could be calculated. The slavish emphasis on information technology in schools can be redressed by a deeper engagement with the natural world.

Moreover, most students and teachers enjoy being out of doors. Indeed, constantly being in a heated environment is one cause of obesity which is at the heart of many of our health problems. In cool conditions the body burns calories more rapidly in order to stay warm. Fresh air may also help address behavioural issues.

Students can then learn how to cook using produce they grow themselves and develop skills that will serve them in years to come. Cooks will develop a deeper connection to their environment, what the French refer to as terroir. This would be especially beneficial to boys whose domestic skills are often poorly developed.

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What is the point is living as long as we do if we are immobilised by disease and muscular wastage?

Considering the degeneration of much of our agriculture as a result of industrial farming it is no wonder that dysfunctional relationships with food have emerged in recent times. An appreciation of fresh, healthy food could deter the onset of eating disorders among teenagers. Studies have shown that the longer we chew the less likely we are to develop obesity (the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula: ‘to gulp down or swallow’). Our brains don’t register we are full if we eat too quickly. If we sit down to a social meal such as a school lunch we will take longer over it. A good-sized lunch also leads to much less snacking on convenience foods.

The Industrial Revolution conferred great benefits on humanity, giving us longer life, more time to devote to art and culture, and even, arguably, creating the conditions for meaningful democracy. But the labour-saving convenience that mechanisation confers is beginning to wreak havoc with our bodies. As we put on weight we break down and are afflicted with chronic diseases like cancer. I ask: what is the point in living as long as we do if we are essentially immobilised by disease and muscular wastage? Death awaits us all but we can ensure that we are fit and healthy along the way.

This is crucial to our mental well-being too. The web of activities associated with food offers a path for a society to negotiate our current health and environmental challenges. Far more time should be devoted to growing, preparing and dining than is the case at present. But just as important as our health, according to the sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann through the magic of cookery ‘love sometimes grows as we peel onions or knead dough’. The best place to nurture that love is in our schools.

Frank Armstrong is a food writer and lecturer at University College Dublin’s Adult Education Centre.

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