LUNCHES to serve up data on when, how kids eat at school

For Paula Dworatzek, it started with a note home from her children’s elementary school that led to a two-year Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) funding grant for the Brescia University College professor.

The note was regarding the elementary school’s proposed move to balanced-day schooling, consisting of 100-minute blocks of instructional time with the intention of improving the school-learning environment. To accommodate this, recess and lunch breaks are reorganized into two nutrition/physical activity breaks.

“The way they had presented this was like it had been shown to be effective and that it was better for kids with respect to eating and what not,” said Dworatzek, a Nutritional Sciences professor. “They made it sound like the research had been done and it was a better thing. I did a literature search and there was nothing on nutrition and balanced school days.”

The balanced schedule originated at one Ontario school in 2000, and since, the concept has been implemented in more than 1,000 schools across the country. Dworatzek said about one-third of Thames Valley District School Board’s elementary schools use the balanced schedule.

“While it is thought these two nutrition breaks are beneficial, it is also possible the provision of two ‘mini-meals’ could have a negative impact on food intake and obesity,” said Dworatzek. She added this is a major public health concern given 25 per cent of Canadian children are identified as overweight or obese.

“Children spend a significant amount of time at school, and foods eaten there are important contributors to their total daily intake. So research studying the nutritional impact of the balanced school day schedule is needed.”

Together with Marina Salvadori, a pediatrician and Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor, and Lesley Macaskill, a lecturer and former public health nutritionist, Dworatzek has begun work on Let’s Understand Nutrition and Children’s Health in Elementary School (LUNCHES), a study funded by a CIHR research grant worth $120,000 over two years.

The study will examine children’s packed lunches, assessing intake during both traditional and balanced schedules, through direct observation by undergraduate nutrition students. A paper showing the methodology used to gather data, which led to the CIHR grant, will be published next month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Researchers will investigate the nutritional value of packed lunch contents and intake of students in the two schedules. A parental survey – to capture student intake factors and show the prevalence of obesity – will be assessed. In addition, the study will eye parental income and picky eating habits of the children as predictors in the data.

This research will be useful for school boards and public health units to understand the nutritional value of packed lunches, Dworatzek said, and may spark future work on improving the nutritional quality of packed lunches.

No Canadian data exists on what kids are eating when at school, Dworatzek added.

“We’re not suggesting schools are going to suddenly change back to the traditional schedule. But if we find out that maybe eating isn’t as healthy in two breaks or there are lot more calories, perhaps it’ll help parents in packing their children’s lunches,” she said. “It’s been up to the individual boards and schools (with regards to traditional or balanced day scheduling). So I wouldn’t think they’d radically switch back, but I do think we need this type of data to help us know what we can do to help parents.”