When I was a teenager, I survived the school day on crisps, a chocolate sticky cake and a cup of milk. That was all I ate at school. All day, every day. More than a quarter of a century later, I still get cravings for those chocolate sticky cakes from the canteen. We used to call them chocolate hedgehogs. Ah, those were the days…
Now, thanks to better understanding of nutrition, increased awareness of the links between mental agility and food, and a TV series from Jamie Oliver, schools have upped their game somewhat. You can no longer find chocolate hedgehogs on offer in most school canteens. Fizzy drinks and sweets tend to be banned. But still… the dinner options I have seen are not what I’d call nutritious.
As you can probably tell from my first paragraph, I am not a paragon of healthiness. I have a fondness for chocolate and an obsession with cake. But even I am scandalised by the bland, beige offerings in most school canteens I have visited. Burgers, pizza, chips… these seem to be the staple of most school dinners.
And yes, now there are some ‘healthy’ alternatives. But usually these consist of a carb-laden jacket potato or a pasta salad. Some schools are lucky enough to have a salad bar – but the limp offerings there are rarely appetising. It is not hard to see why so many students still go for the beige options.
We live in a world where students are continually bombarded with expectations – both of their academic performance, but also of their physical attributes. Are they fit enough, pretty enough, thin enough? It seems particularly unfair that young people are asked to live up to these ridiculous ideals, and then not given the tools with which to do it. I’m no nutritionist, but I’m willing to bet that pizza and chips for lunch every day is not great for your physical or mental health.
So what needs to happen? Well, as always, I’d say that more investment is needed. We need to give students genuinely appetising, healthy options, and for that, money is required. The problem with healthy food is that it is usually more expensive. And in an age where teachers are scrabbling around to find money for paper, books and TAs, investment in food seems unlikely.
But we can dream. And one day, maybe someone with their hands on the purse strings will realise that better nutrition means better mental and physical health for our young people.
And that is priceless.
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