Findings confirm need to rethink school lunches

Brescia University College professor Paula Dworatzek, chair of the School of Food & Nutritional Sciences, encourages parents to take advantage of more healthy foods when packing lunches. Her recent study showed children in balanced school days consume more sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy snacks than kids on a traditional schedule.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsBrescia University College professor Paula Dworatzek, chair of the School of Food & Nutritional Sciences, encourages parents to take advantage of more healthy foods when packing lunches. Her recent study showed children in balanced school days consume more sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy snacks than kids on a traditional schedule.

Following a study into the eating habits of school kids during their lunch breaks, one Brescia University College researcher is calling on Canadians to rethink what – and how – we are feeding our nation’s school kids.

Paula Dworatzek, chair of the School of Food & Nutritional Sciences, recently peeked into the brown bags of Ontario school kids to explore the differences in lunch menus for students in balanced school days versus those on traditional schedules. What she found was a disappointment – if not a surprise.

For students on balanced school days, she found only 41 per cent of their lunches contained vegetables, 63 per cent included fruit, while a whopping 93 per cent had sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks. Slightly more than 70 per cent of these children did not meet Canada’s Food Guide recommendations. That number increased to 80 per cent when researchers excluded fruit juice from the analysis.

As expected, the proportion of vegetables left uneaten was higher than the proportion of unhealthy snacks left uneaten.

Recently published in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, the study looked at 321 children on both schedules in 19 schools across the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB).

The traditional school day schedule involves two short breaks (15 minutes or so) for recess and one longer break for lunch. First implemented in Ontario in 2000, the balanced school day – also known as balanced day schedule – shuffles that order and instead includes two longer breaks that combine food and physical activity.

The Ministry of Education does not keep track of school schedules, so exact numbers are unknown. A recent study, however, estimated more than 1,000 of the province’s schools have switched to some form of the balanced school day. There are currently more than 75 elementary schools in the TVDSB that moved from a traditional to balanced structure.

Dworatzek is not advocating for the elimination of the balanced school day. That schedule may have “a lot of other benefits,” she said. However, parents and children need to understand that they do not need two sugar-sweetened beverages and two dessert-type snacks just because they now have two breaks within that schedule.

“Kids on a traditional schedule have fewer snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages – but they still have them. They are still there. Their lunches aren’t that great either,” she said. “Yes, we saw a difference between balanced school day and traditional school day, but really, packed lunches are the issue.”

Canada is one of the few industrialized nations that does not have a national school food program. While such ideas the United States and United Kingdom have shown foods offered in these programs are healthier, Canada remains a brown-bag country.

“We already had data from other jurisdictions that showed packed lunches weren’t as healthy as school meal programs,” Dworatzek said. “Now, with a balanced schedule, we have more opportunities for unhealthy food. That could be a concern. We thought maybe they’d have more of everything, but all we saw more of was the sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks in the balanced school day kids.”

When the Ontario government put together their Healthy Kids Panel to look at the issue of obesity among youth, one of the recommendations was a school food program. That never came to be in the province. The odds of one developing are low, Dworatzek said

“It would be the ideal solution,” she continued. “Some kids don’t even have a place to eat their lunch. They’re at a corner of their desk or even on the gym floor. We’re doing them a disservice.”

For the study, researchers also asked parents what barriers they faced in packing a healthy lunch. The most common reason? Picky eaters.

Dworatzek understands the dilemma – parents do not want their children going the whole day without eating something, yet when they pack healthy items, they come back uneaten.

“How many days do you have to throw out vegetables before you say you’re not going to send them anymore? But we do need to send them,” Dworatzek said. “They’re putting in the child’s lunch what they know the child will eat. I feel for parents; I’m a parent, too. I’ve thrown out a lot of vegetables over the years that I’ve packed.

“But we need to pack veggies and fruit every day – both, not just one – and try to avoid the dessert-type snacks. A piece of fruit and a yogurt can be a nice treat. I remember having cookies in my lunch. But did I really need them? It has been ingrained and we don’t think twice about it – but we need to.”

The study did not measure vegetable intake outside of school hours. However, she said, it is safe to say most kids are not eating vegetables as an after-school snack.

“The message we need to get across is, if kids and parents only eat vegetables at dinner, they are not likely going to meet their daily needs,” Dworatzek said. “Parents face many barriers when attempting to pack healthy lunches for their children. Schools, health professionals and parents need to make concerted efforts to find ways to overcome these barriers. I do hope that someday we can find a solution.”