The sorry state of our children's nutrition education

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Many Australian schools are falling short in providing appropriate food and nutrition education to children, with no national curriculum outlining set lessons on food and nutrition. Nutritionist Felicity Curtain investigates.

THE OLD adage goes that children have a mind like a sponge, able to absorb information at a rate greater than at any other life stage. It would seem then, that childhood is the best time to learn healthy eating habits, laying the foundation for adolescence and adulthood.

But according to Heather Yeatman, president of the Public Health Association of Australia, this error comes down to Government priorities. She openly criticised their decision to omit food and nutrition education from the draft national health and physical education curriculum in 2013, and to date, this draft has sat still in the water. As she said to IA:

 “Food and cooking are seen as domestic issues, and just not as important as the 3 Rs [reading, writing and arithmetic].”

But while the government is “not taking it seriously”, our nation’s health is failing. One in four Australian children are now considered overweight or obese, and almost forty percent of their daily energy comes from discretionary foods — mainly biscuits, cakes, muffins, soft drinks and confectionary.

Since 2014, a national curriculum has been implemented from foundation level to year 10. Currently, the curriculum’s health and physical education branch holds no mention of food, cooking or nutrition. Up north, the concurrently used Northern Territory Curriculum Framework (NTCF) is food focussed, with many references to current guidelines, but according to Yeatman, this isn’t enough.

She explained to IA:

“Adult surveys show that people can recite guidelines, but in the absence of practical education, are unable to prepare food with confidence”.

With no systematic approach to food and nutrition, public figures like Jamie Oliver, Pete Evans, Stephanie Alexander and Sarah Wilson are “stepping up to fill in the gaps”.

The not-for-profit Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program was launched in 2001, and currently engages 837 schools Australia-wide. Pioneered by the renowned cook of the same name, the program teaches children to “grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal food”.

And while programs like this are admirable, Nutrition Australia executive officer Lucinda Hancock points out that they are voluntary, and so many children are missing out on vital life skills.

Nutrition Australia, in collaboration with the state Government, supports over 100 Victorian schools via the Healthy Eating Advisory Service (HEAS), by improving canteen menus and training staff. But their reliance on local governments and partners to promote the program means the most at-risk rural schools are missing out: Lucinda Hancock told IA:

“The resources are available to schools, but it is up to them to take advantage.”

But nutritionist Chelsea Motlik believes these issues need to be addressed in the classroom. The daughter of a school principal, Motlik was frustrated by the lack of food education in schools, so spent the last two years developing her own nutrition program.

Motlik rolled out ‘School Nutrition’ as a pilot program last year, and says the curriculum has so far been met with positive feedback. Her 8-week program covers topics such as the five food groups, processed foods, sugar, salts, fast food, and diet related diseases. 

But amongst the interest and excitement, Motlik notes the confusion and concern imbedded in student’s questions.

She outlined the problem to IA:

“I’ve had some shocking questions, such as the 10 year old who asked how far she had to run to burn off an apple”.

This is another reason Motlik sees it as imperative that nutrition education is left to professionals.

“Food is a touchy topic for some, and we need to be careful and aware of the emotional effect it may have.”

With this in mind, Motlik has been working with The Butterfly Foundation to ensure her program encourages positive body image.

Year 6 teacher Jonathon Fitt agrees that nutrition is an important learning area, but told IA it is not specifically taught at his Melbourne school:

“We address food through other areas, like literacy and maths — writing procedures on recipes, things like that … but since it’s not in the curriculum, I don’t teach lessons on cooking or nutrition.”

His school offers cooking classes as an elective for senior students, though Fitt observes that only a handful of students benefit from the initiative. Additionally, the “ever-expanding curriculum”, leaves little room to add extra lessons on food literacy.

Globally, iconic British chef Jamie Oliver has made headlines for his effort to enact compulsory food education in schools. His online petition has garnered over one million signatures since March, surpassing his target of 1.5 million.

Oliver believes food education is a “basic human right”, a suggestion Motlik wholly agrees with, saying:

“Every child, no matter what school has the right to be educated about nutrition.”

On the back of his global petition, this year Oliver announced a hands on food education programto be rolled out in Australian primary schools, delivered by the not for profit Good Foundation. Run in the UK since 2012, Jamie Oliver’s learn your fruit and veg aims to introduce children to fresh produce and impart valuable cooking skills. The program complements Oliver’s Ministry of Food campaign, rolled out by The Good Foundation in 2010.

The community cooking skills program offers a 10-week course, with four permanent centres and three mobile kitchens operating Australia-wide. Results of an evaluation of the program carried out by Deakin University found that those involved increased their vegetable intake and reduced take-away purchasing significantly, and were more likely to continue cooking meals from scratch six months after completing the program.

The issue of nutrition education is a political one, which Hancock and Yeatman both agree is dependant on who is in power, budgets, and their agenda. But while preventative health is seen as the way of the future, Yeatman says the “disjuncture between the health and education sectors” only serves to increase the burden of diet related diseases.

With minds like a sponge, the future of Australia’s children is looking overweight, under exercised, and unhealthy.

You can follow Felicity on Twitter @felicitycurtain and her blog

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