In this month’s Raising A Healthy Appetite segment we sit down with Zöe Traiforos, a Toronto lady who is trying to change the way we see the current food program, or lack thereof, in our school system.
Good Food Revolution: Hello Zoe… You have been setting up a parents advocacy group on Facebook that was of great interest to me, as before you know it I’ll have to start thinking about the food our young lad will be eating at school. Tell us a little about your inspiration behind that? And was this brought about through personal experiences with your own children?
Zöe Traiforos: Well, it started when when I dropped my youngest daughter off to full day Kindergarten and finally had a chance to take a breath and observe what was going on in our school system. When my oldest child was younger in grades 1-4, I would usually leave her at school for lunch because juggling a pick up with two younger children in tow was difficult. Everyday I would check her lunch bag and essentially throw out 75% of her uneaten lunch. She would be absolutely famished when she got home and start scouting for sweets, and I started wondering just what was going on there at lunch hour.
So when I finally had my hands free, I began an investigation and I did not like what I discovered. Children were being herded to the gymnasium like cattle, eating in a noisy and distracting environment. In winter months they eat fully dressed in snowsuits, sweating, stressed, rushed, uncomfortable, supervised by an adult/child ratio of 1:100, whistles blowing, food flying- it was not surprising that these kids were not eating their lunch.
In the fifteen minutes they were allowed for settling, eating and ideally, digesting, it seemed that a good portion of the children, some of them as young as five, were too distracted, or frazzled to eat their food. It made me angry. I thought to myself, how can we be treating our children like this? We are raising a generation of kids that are basically learning to skip, or in the best case scenario, rush through, a much needed meal.
I decided I wanted to get to the bottom of why things are the way they are. I became obsessed with it, I lost sleep over it. I read everything I could on the subject, had lengthy communication with my Trustee, contacted the TDSB, reached out to journalists who had written on the subject, and joined the parent council so I could voice my concerns. I started a nutrition committee, dedicated to evaluating and improving the way we eat at school.
I created a Facebook page called Proper Lunch Please in an effort to invoke a forum for parental concerns over this issue and potentially get some political activism happening. Unfortunately, despite a collective parental dissatisfaction with the lunch system, we do not have a unified voice and therefore it’s hard to make an impact here.
I used to wonder, where is the children’s union? Who represents their best interests? When it comes to lunch, it seems that is a job that primarily lands with the parents as every other organization is beholden to their members, budgets or politics. I know it sounds cynical but until we can create a collective voice, and advocate for our kids, I fear it will be very difficult to improve this system.
GFR: You certainly have a point there. And where do you feel the responsibility for such matters lies? With the school boards, the City, the Province, the Federal government, or a combination of all the above?
ZT: Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the stat that we are the only G8 country that does not support a national lunch care program, so responsibility begins with the Federal government. The Province is at fault too but, to be honest, how exactly the blame should be laid is still a mystery to me. The bottom line is that our government does not believe that funding school lunch support should land on the shoulders of the tax payer. That means that schools are built without cafeterias or dedicated eating spaces and our kids are eating in gyms, hallways, on floors, or even in the streets.
Of course, the school boards are also responsible, because they are the ones deciding how to manage lunch hour. The official TDSB policy is that children should go home for lunch, although they will supervise them with minimal requirements, they are not obliged to. Which means, technically, they could cancel lunch supervision and require everyone to leave school property for that hour. With over 90% of children staying at school for lunch and most parents working, what do you think our options would be if they did this? This policy should be changed to reflect the needs of a population where there are fewer stay at home parents. However, if the school board acknowledged and decided to advocate for that need, then they would be forced to negotiate with the government for more funding to support it. We all know how complicated those kind of discussions can be. Hence, no organization is eager to address it.
To be fair, there are some initiatives toward nutrition programs funded by the city and in some cases the province. These are usually snack programs aimed at helping children in needy schools and are generally parent volunteer run. There have also been various studies funded about the link between healthy nutrition and academic achievement and the research is clear; children need to eat well in order to be able to learn. My feeling is that these programs are just tokens of a commitment to good nutrition in our schools, how they are implemented is more telling to me. Nutrition programs that have to be run by volunteers are not helpful when working parents can’t offer that kind of time. So to answer your question, I believe that we all share responsibility for not creating a more civilized school lunch program for our children: the government, the school boards and us, the parents.
GFR: What kind of response have you had from other parents? The more I learn about this topic the more frustrated I become with the current state of affairs.
ZT: When I first brought up the subject of lunch at our parent council meeting, there was visible support for my concerns. People started piping in and moving to the edge of their seats. This is a hot button for many parents who spend time prepping a decent lunch only to throw out its soggy remains at the end of the day. Yet, despite the collective dissatisfaction with lunch time routines, the biggest hurdle I have found is parent inaction. Although they care, no one really has the time (including me for the most part) to take it on. We are not organized in our discontent.
I was recently at a Ward 7 meeting and the subject was nutrition which brought voracious participation. There was one woman who was particularly vocal about her distress and I thought to myself, maybe I should get together with her and raise some awareness about this within the parent communities. So I walked up and introduced myself after the meeting and sort of suggested that a parent advocacy group would be a great idea. She agreed but then sighed and said her plate was already too full, which is exactly how I feel on most days. My passion comes in waves of activity and then frustration at the futility of my efforts.
I’ve been told, unofficially, by both an employee at the Ministry of Education and the TDSB that I am essentially ‘dreaming’ if I think I will ever be able to change the system. Apparently, a place to eat that is civilized and clean, and the possibility of cafeterias existing in our schools are not a political priority for anyone.
GFR: And what kind of way forward do you envision for this ever-growing problem? By your estimations, how many generations have gone through this sorely lacking system now?
ZT: My research suggests that things has been in a steady decline since the Mike Harris government implemented Bill 160 in 1997. I have not been able to discover when and why the government stopped building cafeterias in schools but I do know that such ventures are seen as projects that lose money. Somehow, student nutrition is designated as solely a parental problem and an unprofitable investment for both the government and the school boards.
Until that approach is changed, I can’t see any future for improvement. They can spend money on nutrition studies and implement policies about salt and sugar content in foods served on school property, but at the end of the day this only amounts to political rhetoric. The implementation of a proper lunch system for our children would be an expensive endeavour and no one wants to write that cheque.
GFR: And therein lies the problem, right?
When it comes to your three young girls, how did you endeavour to culture a healthy appetite? I know how much you enjoy good food yourself… do you believe such a love of food is a genetic factor?
ZT: I believe that children will eat what their parents teach them to eat. If your parents like meat and potatoes, so will you. We don’t have a very meat heavy diet so my kids enjoy a lot of bean and vegetable dishes. We love curries, so they love curries, we eat kale salads so they eat kale salads.
I’m not sure when society decided children’s food should be bear paws and chicken fingers. I guess we are all so busy these days that few have the time to cook, fast food goes with our fast lifestyle. I am lucky enough to be home with my kids and I spend at least 3 full hours in my kitchen each day. How can a working parent manage that? I recently watched a talk by activist Michael Pollan, who said that the single most important factor in a healthy diet is whether a human cooked your food. So basically, poorer women who cook, have healthier diets than wealthy woman who don’t. That’s what it all comes down to, taking the time to cook for your children and raising them on healthy, real food.
GFR: And I’d like to hear your thoughts on the whole allergy situation? I mean, one of the reasons that children have to eat in hallways, playgrounds, or streets is directly related to the current food sensitivities of so many of them, right?
ZT: Not quite. Years ago, children used to eat in their classrooms under teacher supervision. Now, at least in the TDSB, children can no longer do that and one of the reasons they give is allergies. Another reason is that teachers have negotiated a 40 minute uninterrupted lunch so they will no longer provide that supervision.
Since the school boards and government are not obliged to provide supervision beyond a ratio of one adult to 100 children, they use allergies as a reason to keep children from eating in the classrooms as they suggest it is unsafe. However, the Catholic school board will allow children to eat lunch in the class and monitors roam the halls and check in. I know one parent of a child with an allergy who was upset with that situation as she considered it dangerous so who knows, allergy concerns may soon change the system in the Catholic school board too.
Basically, we have a very politicized situation where many of our policies and decisions are made around fear of litigation. Personally, in the absence of cafeterias, I would prefer that my children ate in their classroom. I don’t accept that allergic reactions would be any more frequent at your own desk than in a gym at communal tables with 600 screaming kids throwing food at each other.
There are several videos that have gone viral showing Japanese students cleaning their classrooms. If they can do it, why can’t we? If everyone was at their own desk and there was a cleaning roster with some sort of incentive for good behaviour, I think it would be safer for the allergic children and certainly better for the majority of kids who could perhaps use the bathroom before they ate, not wear their snowsuits, and have a quiet, calm period of time to eat their lunch. We seem to be stuck in a rut, we need some innovative and inspired leadership.
GFR: How are your childrens’ tastes for foods today? Have any of them become “picky eaters”?
ZT: Yes, my children have very different palates. My eldest seems to be getting pickier as she encroaches upon puberty but I think that it’s just her personality that is getting fussier.
My middle child is and always has been an adventurous eater. She barely had teeth when she first tried octopus, she loves scallops, mussels and all sorts of vegetables, she is basically my epicurean twin.
My little one is all over the place, but she love a good piece of bread and a plate of olive oil. All of my girls have their own particular preferences but somethings are not negotiable: they all eat vegetables and fruit, loads of olive oil and a variety of beans, meats and cheeses.
GFR: And where could our readers go if they wished to learn more about this topic?
ZT: Food Secure seems to taking the lead on this subject. My aspiration is to get involved with them in the future. You can always connect with me on Facebook through my Proper Lunch Please group. Thanks for your interest in this Jamie.
GFR: The pleasure is all mine. Thanks for opening my eyes to this disaster in the making!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he thinks that Zoe’s initiatives are a great thing.