There was an interesting story in yesterday’s Globe and Mail entitled ‘School food policies get low marks.’ It asserts that governments have failed Canadian students by permitting the sale of very unhealthy food in schools. While some provinces fared better than others, a report card released by The Centre for Science in the Public Interest gave an F to three: Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. No province received an A.
This story got me thinking about the last school I taught at, and the unpleasant consequences of a little activism for better nutrition within that school. It all started one lunch hour when, emerging from the staffroom, I saw something that even
my cynical eyes found hard to accept: a candy dispensing machine was being installed right beside my room! Assuming this was the result of miscommunication, I called the office to express my incredulity, only to be told by the Vice-Principal that it was being installed under the Principal’s authority. Several of my colleagues spoke to him about the inappropriateness of this location, to no avail.
There was something deeply disconcerting about entering the school at 8:00 a.m. to find students feeding the machine their money in order to secure a candy bar in place of a decent breakfast. Equally disturbing were the compromises the machine’s presence forced me to adopt, such as having to close my door at about 9:30 every morning rather than allow my class to become distracted by the cafeteria lady emptying the last previous day’s profits from the machine. I was told this was the only time the task could be performed, as the lady only worked at the school four hours per day. This cacophonous clash of commerce competing with the art of English instruction was, I felt, richly symbolic of the many philistine priorities that seem endemic to education today, and certainly made a mockery of education officials’ public expressions of concern for student health and well-being.
Because it was right beside my room, I eventually decided to take matters into my own hands. I began printing up posters warning of the rising risks of diabetes amongst young people, the relationship between junk food and heart disease, the epidemic of teen obesity, etc. Ultimately, my efforts were rewarded with discipline which took the form of a “written verbal reprimand” (something of an oxymoron, I always thought) which I successfully grieved. After about seven months, the machine was relocated to the school foyer, to join the Pepsi dispensing machines. Now students could get both their caffeine and sugar fixes in one convenient location.
One thing that the public probably doesn’t understand is what a moneymaker the sale of junk food is for schools. For every greasy, cholesterol-laden hamburger, fat-drenched batch of french-fries or poutine sold, for every candy bar dispensed, there is a kickback to the school. The exact amount of the kickback in my school was a closely-guarded secret, something even the Federation could not ascertain. When I made inquiries of the cafeteria management as to why healthy snacks could not be placed in the vending machines, I was told that had been tried but there was little money to be made due to poor sales. While it may be true that the money from such operations is needed to supplement the government grants for education, surely endangering the health of our students is too high a price to pay, and unquestionably makes education decision-makers complicit in their physical decline.
This has to change.