Can you recall the days when children living close to their schools would go home for lunch? What about those delicious cheese, tuna or sausage sandwiches packed in lunch kits in zip-lock bags or wrapped neatly in foil? Either way, school children always had something good to eat for lunch. Unfortunately, today many children don’t take home-cooked meals to school. Parents complain that they do not have the time to prepare meals for their children and instead give them money to purchase meals at school cafeterias. While this may save time, it is more costly and children may not be getting healthy meals where menu choices often include burgers, roti, fried chicken and fries. Beverages are usually a choice between soft drinks and concentrated juices. Caitleen Reyes, cafeteria manager at Newtown Boys’ RC School in Port-of-Spain says, pupils benefit from a healthy menu. “We change the menu every week, but the standard remains,” she assured. She says she tries to ensure that pupils get healthy choices from the six food groups.
Menu items include dumplings with stewed chicken and pigeon peas; stewed pork with lentils and macaroni salad; and pelau, baked potatoes and chicken. All meals are accompanied by a fresh salad. Even when she prepares fun meals like pizza or roti, vegetables are always included. Reyes hardly ever prepares fried foods. “Instead of frying I bake most things, like fish and french fries and even chicken,” she said. Soft drinks are not sold at Newtown Boys’ cafe. Instead pupils can choose from fruit juices, water and milk drinks. A cafeteria operator at a girls’ high school in Port-of-Spain, who did not want to be identified, said her biggest challenge is that children do not really want to eat healthy foods—the majority prefer fries and roti. “I had even stopped making fries for a while after the principal expressed her concern about the amount students were consuming. This was like a disaster come to town for these girls. “I was taking food home almost everyday as they just were not buying it,” she said. She cooks a variety of meals, including pelau, Chinese cuisine, spinach rice and saltfish, macaroni pie and baked chicken and other dishes, but these are not very popular with the students. “They will spend their money, but not on food they don’t want to eat. Most of the time I have to make what I know they will buy,” she admitted. At the McKenzie Early Childhood Centre in Trincity, principal Margaret McKenzie says pre-schoolers “must” have a fruit in their lunch kits. “I am soon going to change snack time to fruit time,” she said. McKenzie encourages parents to cook vegetables for their children, or prepare simple, healthy meals. Only juices and water are allowed in lunch kits, McKenzie said.
Ministries on board
Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan says his ministry is working closely with the Ministry of Education to improve school cafeterias. He says under the guidance of Cabinet, the ministries have put together a committee, the Partners Forum, comprising members of the ministries and public and private stakeholders. This committee will work on changing the current state of school cafeterias and develop programmes to encourage healthy lifestyles. “We are working to put a policy in place that will seek to decrease the amount of sugary foods, fried foods and carbonated beverages sold at schools,” Khan said. He says research shows these are major contributors to childhood obesity. Instead of soft drinks, there will be more natural fruit juices available for children—absolutely no juices from concentrates. Cafeterias will also have to include more vegetables in meals and fruits instead of processed snacks. “The ministry is also toying with the idea of placing vending machines in schools which will contain healthy snacks and drinks,” Khan said. They are also working on creating videos and cartoon characters to encourage young children to eat healthy foods. “If we can get the youngest child to buy into the whole idea of eating fruits and vegetables instead of processed snacks, then we would have accomplished our goal—a healthier generation,” said Khan.
He says fast food companies target young children using the same medium.“We will use the same tool, only children will be encouraged to choose an apple or banana over sweets and other unhealthy foods.”Minister of Education Dr Tim Gopeesingh says it will take a lot of work and time before things can actually change. He says once the policy is approved by Cabinet, implementation, monitoring and evaluation can begin. “I am yet to do a full analysis into school cafeterias to see which are managed by private owners or a board,” said Gopeesingh. He says in addition to changing the menus at school cafeterias the policy will also address physical education as an integral part of a child’s health.He says he is also seeking input from the Food Production Ministry and the National School’s Dietary Services Ltd to bring about change in school cafeterias and the school feeding programme.