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Why do we feed our kids junk food?

Keith Parkins | 12.02.2007 14:54 | Ecology | Education | Health

Children need the best food, not the worst, and yet we feed them rubbish, such as regurgitated slaughter house slurry, repackaged as chicken nuggets.

Jamie Oliver quite rightly railed against the muck that is served as school dinners. And yet at the other end of the spectrum, Gerald Howarth MP, astonished his constituents when he was pictured on the front page of his local paper promoting McDonald's and bragging that he took his children there when they were young.

Brits are not renowned for the quality of their diet or their taste in food. If what Brits eat is bad enough, what they feed their kids is even worse, and that is not counting the ritual child abuse at the local McVomit.

In Europe, restaurants, unless in touristy areas frequented by Brits, do not have a separate menu for children, smaller portions maybe, but not different food, as though kids are a subspecies needing a different diet like the family dog.

The diet that kids are being fed is so bad, that most of them are likely to be dead before their parents.

In Holland, kindergarten children snack on fruit and yoghurt, in the UK it would be crisps and chocolate.

Celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver was one of the first to highlight the scandal of school dinners. 35p was the amount allocated per child per dinner, less than the army spends feeding its dogs.

Following the exposure of this national scandal in Jaimie's School Dinners, there has been some improvement, both in the amount of money allocated and the quality of the food served, but already there has been a backlash, with parents smuggling junk food across the school fence, claiming their kids 'ain't eating proper food'.

Our children deserve better. Growing minds, growing bodies, deserve the best food, not the worst. We are what we eat.

Drop into No 1 Restaurant, a grill and specialty pancake restaurant in Protaras in Cyprus on a weekend, and you will find a large table with an extended Cypriot family enjoying a meal. No special menu for the kids, no tantrums. A scene that is the norm anywhere in Europe. No junk food, no gimmicks, no free gifts, just good wholesome food.

Walk a little further down the road, and you find Nicolas Tavern, a traditional Greek-Cypriot taverna serving traditional Greek-Cypriot cuisine. Try their clay-oven kleftico.

By 2020, one third of adults, one fifth of boys, one third of girls will be obese.

Children sitting down together to eat decent food is much more than simple nutrition and avoidance of obesity. Their behavioral problems are better, they are more alert, they learn social skills, and they may even learn to appreciate good food.

But we can do more, much more. The children should be taught to cook, and if the school has the grounds or there are allotments nearby, grow their own food using traditional varieties. This way they will learn more about not only food but also seasonality. There is nothing to beat preparing your own food from your own freshly picked in-season produce grown from traditional varieties.

If no one cooks at home anymore, then where are kids to learn to cook, or even to learn about food? School seems to be the obvious place, but home cooking is no longer part of the school vocabulary, let alone on the school curriculum, instead kids do food technology. Instead of learning about basic foods, basic cooking skills, they spend a term designing an industrial food product.

In the forward to Cooking With Jamie, Jamie Oliver writes that fifty-odd years ago there was probably no need for a book like this, as people had a good knowledge of cooking, but now there is, and soon the ability to cook will be lost, unless we take the steps now to teach people to cook.

'Cooking should be as normal to you and me as it was to our mums and nans, and the only way it is going to happen is if becomes compulsory to teach kids how to cook at school again. It is important to learn about the integrity of homemade food before this knowledge is lost for ever.'

When kids don't know that chips come from potatoes and think potatoes grow on trees, it indicates what an uphill struggle we have.

If 35p is spent on providing the basic ingredients for children's school dinners, and parents are stumping up £1-40 to £1-70, where is the difference going, the headmaster's slush fund?

A typical school meal in France could consist of tomatoes dressed with vinaigrette for starters, fish in a tarragon sauce with rice as the main course, followed by fruit for dessert, plus a small portion of cheese. A four course meal is not atypical. The kids sit around a table and are given the time to enjoy their meal.

In Italy, kids sit down to a school dinner of vegetable soup, followed by braised beef with polenta, followed by a yoghurt. On another day it could be meat ravioli with sage, or pumpkin soup, followed by a vegetable fritatta served with a raw fennel salad. On a Friday, baked fish with a green salad. Or what about pasta with tomato sauce, followed by and tuna, followed by seasonal fruit.

When Jamie Oliver visited one of the poorest townships in Johannesburg, he found the kids had a better quality school dinner than they would get in England. He watched as a group of women created a school lunch out of the freshest ingredients they could get – a mutton stew with fresh, locally grown carrots and cabbage, with fruit for dessert.

'It completely astounded me that in a place of unbelievable poverty, the love and care put into children's’ meals was greater than in Inner London – and resulted in a more nutritionally balanced lunch. If they can do it, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t. Our friends across the world are amazed that a proud country such as ours can have such little regard for the health and wellbeing of its children.'

Jamie Oliver created a stir, the government promised more money, but when the fuss died down it proved to be little more than neo-Labour empty promises, creative accounting and significant proportion was to be financed by the national lottery.

After all the furore, a 'generous' 50p was to be allocated for school dinners!

The Treasury is aware of the costs of obesity, but will not allocate the funding to give kids decent school meals.

The commitment by the government to improvement in school meals can be seen by the fact they did not appoint Jamie Oliver to the panel to oversee the improvements. After all it would not do to appoint a maverick, someone who might rock the boat, someone who had a proven track record as an effective advocate on behalf of the kids.

One of the mistakes schools make is to contract out. It is the easy option. Corners are then cut, the quality goes down, as does the take up of school meals.

A small group of schools in Essex have bucked this trend, work directly with local organic food producers, who help draw up the menus. This has seen a marked improvement in the quality off food served. More money can go on the ingredients, rather than onto the balance sheet of an industrial caterer. The kids get freshly cooked meals, made from fresh ingredients. The cooks can exercise their skills, rather than simply open packets.

If we want to wean children off bad food, then why do we not do the blindingly obvious and introduce them to good food? Where this has been tried, where the school menu has changed to quality food, it has worked.

In Lincoln, chefs from some of the city's top restaurant's, each took it in turn to prepare a school dinner.

Charlie Trotter, owner of the prestigious Charlie Trotter's, an exclusive restaurant in Chicago, $200 a head, wine from $30 a bottle to over $20,000 a bottle, took this a step further. Once a week, he invites local High School kids to come and dine for free, and serves up a six to seven course dinner. Before each course is served, a member of his kitchen staff who has prepared the course, talks enthusiastically about the course, how it was prepared, from where the ingredients were sourced.

Something that always comes across from those who are involved in good food, is the enthusiasm they have for good food, its preparation, its sourcing. Charlie Trotter and his staff are no exception.

You only have to hear Jamie Oliver prattle on for a while about food and cooking, and what comes across is his love of good food, the preparation, the sourcing of quality ingredients.

I have found this time and time again. I found it when I talked to Kate O'Meara and her staff at The Cheese Society, a cheese café in Lincoln. I found it when I talked to Jane Bom-Bane, proprietor of Bom-Bane's, an excellent little restaurant in Brighton. I found it too when I talked to her chef John. I find it when I talk to producers at farmers markets. I find it when I talk to the Isle of Wight tomato growers, who supply myself and Jamie Oliver, I find it when I talk to Secretts Farm, who also supply myself and Jamie Oliver. I found it when I talked with Sarah and Andrew, the Seed Ambassadors from Oregon, who I met at Seedy Sunday Brighton, who are touring Europe collecting and swapping heritage seeds. I found it when I went to London and talked to traders and supporters at Queen's Market at Upton Park, a century old, traditional East End street market that the megalomaniac mayor in collusion with property developers, is doing his best to destroy for a supermarket. I found it when I talked with my friend Jenny, a school chef who makes it clear to her suppliers, that only the best is good enough for her kids.

Schools that have breakfast clubs report improved behaviour in the classroom. A number of published studies have shown that hungry children behave worse in school, registering reductions in fighting and absence and increased attention when meals are provided.

The link between diet and physical health is recognised and well documented, that between diet and mental health less so, and yet the brain is an organ of the body same as any other organ.

Bernard Gesch a psychologist at Oxford University has carried out research on links between diet and behaviour by feeding nutritional supplements to prisoners. He found there to be a strong correlation between poor diet and bad behaviour. Similar studies have produced similar results.

One study found that children lacking in certain nutrients had a 41% increase in aggressive behaviour by the time they reached the age of eight compared with children on diets not nutrient deficient.

Modern diets, high in fats, sugars and synthetic additives, low in nutrients, in other words junk food, cause increase in criminal and anti-social behaviour.



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acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2002

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Keith Parkins, Sowing Seeds of Dissent, Indymedia UK, 6 September 2004

Keith Parkins, Seeds of Dissent, September 2004

Keith Parkins, MP promotes junk food, Indymedia UK, 17 January 2007

Keith Parkins, MP yet again pictured promoting McDonald's, Indymedia UK, 19 January 2007

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Keith Parkins, Bad Food Britain, to be published

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Keith Parkins
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Hide the following 2 comments

Three nights a week

13.02.2007 17:41

Oops, a few mistakes crept into the above article.

The 60-page, bound, wine list at Charlie Trotter's has wines ranging from $30 to $19,500 a bottle. It costs $250 a head to dine at Charlie Trotter's, well anyway, upwards of $200 a head.

High school kids, from some of the poorest districts in Chicago, are invited three times a week, to dine for free at Charlie Trotter's.

This got me thinking, maybe Jamie Oliver should give it a go.

Jamie Oliver established the Fifteen Foundation and the Fifteen restaurants to give deprived kids a start in life. Would it not be a good idea to expand the idea and open up the restaurants at least one night a week to school kids from the local area to come and dine for free? But not just dine for free, but like at Charlie Trotter's, to have the kitchen staff talk enthusiastically about each course they have prepared, from where its ingredients have been sourced.

Keith Parkins

childrens food fesitival

13.02.2007 18:13