Most Canberrans who grew up in the 80s and 90s will fondly remember school lunch order day. The brown paper bag with a few coins taped to the front. Dropping it in the basket at the beginning of the day and eagerly awaiting your foil-wrapped lasagne or sausage roll, maybe some Ovalteenies and a Sunnyboy for dessert.
Lunch order day was always my favourite day of the week. It was extra good if you were one of the lucky kids chosen to collect the basket full of lunches from the canteen because the canteen lady might pop you a few fruit balls for your efforts.
But a lot has changed since the good old lunch order days. Not only do we have a better understanding of what is a balanced meal, but those coins you had taped to the front of the bag don’t go as far these days.
The canteens of my generation were run on huge amounts of volunteer time and effort. While there were often one or two paid staff, a lot of the grunt work relied on parents and carers donating their time to make the canteens run.
Canteens today still run off both paid and volunteer time – both of which pose challenges. Life has got a lot busier since the 80s. These days, both parents are often working, they’re trying to run a household, keep up with sports and social commitments, cook well-balanced meals and manage the mental load of raising small humans.
While many might want to help out at their local school, they simply don’t have the time to add any more to their plate (pardon the pun!) And we shouldn’t expect them to.
Meanwhile, paid canteen roles often require qualification hurdles, skills to manage food health and safety, payroll and all the obligations that come with running a small business.
While many school canteens are run by a hard-working P&C, this model faces many challenges. Some require fundraisers or other subsidies to make their canteen model financially sustainable. Most struggle to make a profit, even though some canteens are expected to so that extra funding can supplement spending in other school areas. Many also struggle with the fact that healthier foods are more expensive than less healthy options.
These challenges have likely contributed to the concerning situation where 31 ACT public schools don’t have canteens at all, and 42 per cent of those are in Tuggeranong.
It’s well-established that childhood health and nutrition are key determinants of educational and social outcomes and that the foundation for healthy eating habits and lifestyles is built in the early years of life. The society-wide benefits of feeding our children well and teaching them good food habits are enormous and life-long, yet, as the UN World Food Programme says, we so often invest in learning, but not in the learner.
Many jurisdictions have already joined the dots in this area and are taking action.
In Brazil, schools are required to serve healthy lunches with a portion of the ingredients sourced from local farmers. School meals were expanded to all schools in 2009, catering to more than 40 million children.
In many Japanese schools, teaching kids about healthy food and cooking takes place not by serving meals to them but by the kids themselves serving each other. Students take turns cooking and serving meals to their peers and cleaning up afterwards.
The US state of Michigan has recently budgeted to provide all 1.4 million of its public school students with free breakfasts and lunches commencing from the beginning of their new school year this month.
I know for many parents and carers, spare coins are as hard to come by as spare time. And this is why the ACT Government’s pilot program to give free school meals in five ACT public schools is so important.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of the pilot study and, hopefully, the expansion of the program to all public schools as soon as possible. But until that time, the very least we can do is ensure that every parent and carer can rely on their school canteen to make healthy food available for their child during the school day because for some busy parents or carers, making school lunch might be the thing they just can’t handle. I know that for my parents, at least, a few gold coins in a brown paper bag was the easiest way to ensure I didn’t go hungry at school.
Accordingly, recently, in the ACT Legislative Assembly, I called on the ACT Government to consult with key school community stakeholders to investigate policies to provide every ACT public school with an operational canteen and enable those canteens to prioritise healthy foods.
No child in Canberra should go hungry. No Canberra parent or carer should have to worry about their ability, or their school’s ability, to provide healthy meals to their children. And no canteen service should have to choose between healthy food options and balancing the budget.
Johnathan Davis is the MLA for Brindabella and the ACT Greens’ spokesperson for education.