The school year began a week ago for a lot of kids. Mine won’t go back to school until Friday. And that’s a good thing, really, since I’ve been out of commission for the past so many days. If your kids are like mine, then the school year opening also means no more sleeping late into the morning. It’s back to the old routine of preparing breakfast at the crack of dawn and packing school lunch boxes.
It isn’t my idea that the kids bring lunch boxes. If I had things my way, they’d be buying their snacks and lunches from the school canteen. But school canteen food is school canteen food and it’s nothing like home-cooked meals. So, I pack their school lunches five days a week.
Still and all, should they have a change of heart about buying their lunch from the canteen, I have not much cause for worry. My kids go to a school where junk food has no place in the school canteen and I don’t have to stress myself out silly about whether the kids are eating properly or not.
Sadly, that kind of school canteen policy constitutes the exception rather than the rule. In nine out of every 10 school canteens I have visited in the past couple of years, there are concessionaire stands selling hotdogs, pizza, ice cream and soft drinks. The snack counters are filled with pouches of chips, candies and all sorts of junk food. So much for children’s nutrition. For many school owners and administrators, it is more important to collect monthly rent from the concessionaires rather than assure our kids’ health.
A year or so ago, I mentioned a lock-out program instigated by a multinational food corporation. The corporation was building a network of independent contractors whose job was to approach school owners and administrators to convince them to allow the corporation to acquire concessions in the school canteens on an exclusive basis. Meaning? Well, meaning, if the corporation sells chocolate milk, no other brands of chocolate milk would be sold in the canteen. If the corporation sells fruit juices in cartons, the canteen would carry their brand exclusively.
The come-on was a lump sum payment (I’m talking seven figures here) to the school in the form of an incentive, a percentage of which would be paid as commission to the independent contractor who managed to clinch the deal with the school owner or administrator.
The horror and hypocrisy do not even end there. In one of the schools that my kids attended in the past, teachers emphasized the importance of Grow, Glow and Go food in science class. Come lunch time, teachers lined up at the canteen for their daily dose of soft drinks while the pupils were banned from buying the same. Worse, when the school owner’s daughter-in-law decided to become active in the family business, she took a portion of the canteen where she started selling French fries served with powdered artificial cheese or sour cream flavoring.
It’s hard to teach what one does not practice. In the case of teachers, they lose a lot of credibility when they keep harping about eating healthy and the students find them frequenting the nearby sari-sari store to buy Coke or the barbecue stand a few blocks away for a dose of grilled isaw (pork intestines). It somehow turns health education into a joke–a mockery even–when teachers say one thing in the classroom and do the opposite outside.
Truth is, you can’t start eating healthy early enough. I’ve been a proponent of natural food and cooking for years but what I’ve managed to stuff inside my body during my childhood and adolescence had done irreversible damage. My mother was no cook and we lived on canned goods and restaurant-bought food from high school through college. Little did I know that the accumulated fat content had been building stones inside my gall bladder for years. That was why I missed three consecutive columns. I had to undergo surgery. Then, I needed time for recovery.
Just a few weeks ago, I mentioned a movement in Australia about banning junk food TV ads to lessen the impact of the very pervasive junk food culture on children. The movement was meant to address the rising incidence of obesity that had afflicted a lot of First World countries. But obesity is not the only consequence of unhealthy eating. We’re also talking about clogged arteries, mangled digestive systems and high blood sugar levels–the latter commonly associated with a culture obsessed with soft drinks, powdered juices and sugar-laden iced tea.
Considering how advertising–and junk food ads constitute a huge chunk of advertisements–drives mass media, it might not be that easy to keep them off the idiot boxes, radio, newspapers and magazines. But we can keep the junk food off the school canteens and that’s a big step. I doubt if government officials will take any initiative. Instead, I urge parents to utilize fora like Parent-Teachers Associations and to petition their Congress representatives, mayors and city councils to help draw up guidelines on what can be, and should not be, sold in school canteens. That would be a giant leap indeed.