Are schools responsible for instilling healthy eating habits in their students?
Unlike schools back home where a higher order dictates school cafeteria offerings, private international schools in Beijing generally have more control over what foods they offer on campus. However, whether schools are responsible for teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits in our children is up for debate. Some would say that healthy eating habits should start in the home, and would naturally be reflected in a student’s choices in school. Others are more worried about their children eating their fill, as nitpicky, finicky eaters might avoid eating altogether when faced with a lack of tasty options. We can all agree that children ought to eat when hungry in order to fuel their bodies and brains for the school day, but how do schools take on the healthy food movement?
To find answers, we approached two international schools for their school lunch policies and procedures. While both reputable, the British School of Beijing Shunyi (BSB) has a large, K-12 student body to serve, and a multinational organization behind it, while House of Knowledge International School and Kindergarten (HoK) runs smaller scale international schools, housing only kindergarten and elementary aged children on its two campuses. The differences do not stop there. Where BSB outsources its massive lunch needs and café offerings to an outside caterer (Eurest), HoK has a full in-house kitchen staff preparing breakfast, lunch, and snacks to its young population. We questioned the two vastly different schools how they determine what “healthy eats” are in today’s plethora of health recommendations, nutritional suggestions, and cultural opinions.
Beijing’s international community is so wide and varied that there’s bound to be a multitude of culture-specific opinions, food limitations, and other accommodations to be made. Do the schools monitor what is served our children, and how often is this menu reviewed? Are parents involved in deciding what their children are fed?
Healthy Eating is a Habit
Both BSB Shunyi and HoK agree that healthy eating is a habit. Andy Puttock, Principal at BSB Shunyi, explains that with a large student population in an international city such as Beijing, there will be families with “different views about what they want a school restaurant to provide”. Regardless, BSB Shunyi believes that children should eat healthily at school because “studies have consistently shown that students learn much better in school if they have a healthy diet; it feeds the brain as well as the body, and enables students to be alert and effective in their studies”.
Tara Gillan, Director of Marketing at HoK, responds in agreement: “healthy eating habits have been shown to stabilize energy, sharpen the mind, and improve moods, allowing us to maximize our student performance.”
Finally, both schools would agree that it is their responsibility to teach healthy eating habits as part of a holistic education program. Where BSB sees “the way students behave, interact, socialize, play, and undertake routine […] as an important part of learning,” including the way they eat. Gillan states that “healthy eating starts at home and in school,” reminding us that “children watch and imitate adults; they look to them to learn from them and the environment around them.” Hence why “teachers at HoK sit and eat with students at meals and snack times, acting as role models, exhibiting positive attitudes towards healthy food”. Puttock emphasizes that “if [students]acquire good healthy eating habits in school, it is likely they will take these into their home and their future.”
Criteria for Healthy Food
What constitutes as a healthy, balanced, nutritional diet is up for debate even among nutritionists, dieticians, and physicians — so how do schools decide on what to serve? For many, the responsibility of decision is too heavy for one governing body, and is thus divided into tiers of decision makers.
At BSB Shunyi, for example, the catering partner provides menu suggestions based on the recommendations of their in-house nutritionist. The school then has a Food Committee, consisting of parents, students, and staff members, who meet once a month to discuss whether the menu is healthy, balanced, and appropriate for the students’ developmental needs (especially for the youngest). Comments and criticism from committee meetings are then brought up regularly at the top level management meetings as well as in meetings with caterers.
Other schools might choose their own criteria, deciding for themselves what they define as a nutritionally balanced diet. The school’s opinion on healthy eating is then incorporated into their menus, their classrooms, as well as parent education.
HoK observes the World Health Organization (WHO) healthy diet recommendations, defining a balanced nutrition based on a diet with the five key food groups. The school only serves water (no sugary drinks), and has set water breaks when teachers monitor the children’s water intake. The menu is then fully reviewed once a year at both campuses with all the teachers, the principal, and the kitchen manager. The bulk of the feedback is from teachers, who dine with the children on a daily basis, and as such are privy to which meals are well-received and which ones hardly get tasted. By dropping unpopular meals, the school can add variety and keep their menu fresh and exciting for the students.
Application of Healthy Food
In addition to balancing the amount of energy and nutrients for the growth and development of their young students, HoK is also careful about their ingredients. With in-house catering, HoK has full control of everything from the menu to the ingredients chosen. They promote themselves as leaving out “unnecessary ingredients such as extra salt, extra oil,” and brand themselves a MSG-free school.
As food safety is a key concern in China, HoK carefully chooses its ingredient sources, opting for certified organic farms when possible, and green label options when in the wrong season. The school kitchen also uses organic rice and flours, Wonder Milk and Wonder Milk sugar-free yogurt, breads fresh from a German bakery, and meats from a licensed butcher.
When schools outsource catering, as BSB Shunyi does, it is up to the caterer to source fresh, safe, and healthy ingredients. The catering company BSB Shunyi is partnered with is the same one used by Keystone Academy. Their daily menu includes at least one Western dish and one Asian special, in addition to their salad bar, bread baskets, and sandwich station. The displayed variety is enough for older students to make healthy choices, according to Andy Puttock, though the school’s management team does routinely keep an eye out on what is being eaten. However, with primary school children, the classroom teachers eat with them to ensure that children are eating well, and to be able to communicate with parents when children are not.
Giving the Menu a Global Kick
Due to Beijing’s international mixture of residents, most international schools will encourage global awareness by incorporating as many international dishes into their menus as possible. BSB Shunyi provides foods such as Indonesian nasi goreng chicken with prawn crackers, Japanese udon noodles, Korean bibimbap, Spanish seafood paella, Mexican chicken tortillas, and British roast pork with jacket potatoes.
HoK also believes that “food and culture are inextricably linked.” As such, their kitchen prepares a variety of dishes from around the world, including German schnitzels, Japanese curry, Mexican fajita wraps, and Italian pasta carbonara, in addition to Chinese food. “Encouraging kids to try new foods from other cultures is one way to foster acceptance of diversity and differences around the world and in the classroom,” expands Tara Gillan. “Although the students’ initial reactions to a dish from another country may be: ‘Ew! What IS that?’ We always encourage the students to try new things, not only for their health, but also for social education reasons.”
Whether your child has food allergies or dietary restrictions for other reasons, schools must accommodate them when providing foods to your children. Schools with catering, such as BSB Shunyi, will always offer specific dishes to accommodate religious or other dietary restrictions, such as a vegetarian dish, gluten-free foods, and halal-certified beef, lamb, and chicken. However, all schools, especially those with their own kitchen, have a running list of the allergies and dietary needs of their staff and student body.
As with most schools, the admissions process will require parents to disclose all allergies and dietary restrictions. Oftentimes, this becomes a private discussion with parents, where the schools will take the time to sit down and properly discuss dietary options, the severity of the allergies, how to treat reactions, and so forth. Parents of children with peanut allergies will be relieved to find that both BSB and HoK are “nut free” schools due to the rise in peanut allergies in children.
A part of encouraging healthy eating habits in schools is having food that is appealing to students. If students were to refuse to eat in school, then they risk becoming undernourished, snacking on unhealthy alternatives, or even going hungry. As such, creating nutritionally balanced healthy dishes that the majority of the student body finds tasty could just be the biggest challenge of every school. Whether a school welcomes feedback from students and implements changes in a timely fashion is crucial to student well-being.
At BSB Shunyi, the menu is formally reviewed every month based on feedback from the Food Committee, which consists of parents, staff, and older students. Younger students are given simple feedback forms that are reviewed by school management and caterers. However, it is notable that the menu can be changed spontaneously based on customer demand in informal reviews with the caterer.
The feedback and review process is similar at HoK, where, due to the younger student population, the duty of food critiquing falls on the shoulders of their teachers. Feedback forms allow teachers to rate the meals based on taste, healthiness, presentation, food preparation, among others. Feedback is generally collected for the annual review, but some comments can be taken directly to the cook as they are received.
Although parents and schools can agree or disagree on which party is responsible for foundational eating habits, schools developing these processes ensure healthy, well-rounded diets for every child.
This article originally appeared on page 26-29 of the August 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Uni You and Courtesy of BSB Shunyi