Running on Empty

The quest to nourish our children

By Kate Pierson

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Kids will be kids when it comes to junkfood but what about the child who is always tired and can’t concentrate in class?

When we think about nourishing our children we may think about feeding their minds and their souls, but what about in the literal sense? New Zealand’s clean and green environment is like an oasis for children with native playgrounds at their leisure, yet the reality of many children’s existence tells a darker story of being deprived of the basic necessities of life.

Two issues affecting New Zealand’s future leaders are equally detrimental, but at opposite ends of the dietary spectrum.

One is associated with kids going hungry and the other is a weighty issue, literally.

And while the ultimate responsibility for providing children with nutritional sustenance and a balanced diet lies with parents, the education sector, with the help of various organisations, is endeavouring to bridge the hunger and nutrition gap.

Empty tummies

According to the UNICEF 2007 research paper An overview of child well-being in rich countries, 16.3 percent of children in New Zealand are living in households with an income 50 percent below the national median – one of the highest numbers in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Because of this, children every day are running on empty.

For reasons beyond their own control, thousands of kids are deprived of the most important meals of the day – breakfast and lunch and their levels of energy and concentration are dangerously impaired because of it.

Beyond the immediate issue of health and well-being, the ramifications of children going hungry extends to their emotional and intellectual growth.

Child hunger is a widespread issue in New Zealand and cannot be attributed to just one socio-economic demographic, familial or financial situation.

Children from all walks of life are arriving at school with no food fuel for the day and would go hungry if not for the intervention of schools and philanthropic organisations committed to ensuring pupils are fed and watered.

Feeding little Kiwis

The Red Cross Breakfast in Schools campaign was established in 2008 and May 8,2009 marked one year of operation.

In one year, 30,000 breakfasts were served to 24 schools across New Zealand who signed up for the initiative. National programme manager Patrick Cummings conceded that ideally there would be no need for such a cause but the numbers speak for themselves.

“There are Kiwi kids arriving at school hungry and as a humanitarian organisation that aims to address vulnerability, we took action to target a real need,” he says.

The KidsCan organisation is one of New Zealand’s most reputable campaigns and is a registered charitable trust with IRD tax exemption status.

In 2009 it brought back a nostalgic initiative to our television screens – the Telethon, to fundraise for underprivileged children. As part of its food program, KidsCan feeds 17,000 children a week and 173 low decile schools are currently involved in the program. The need is still great however, with 120 low decile schools on the waiting list.

KidsCan executive director and founder, Julie Helson says the program differs from others, it’s not universal and the organisation makes sure food products given to schools are appropriate for any time of the day for children who need food to take home.

“Our philosophy is that we listen to schools and work with them to the meet the needs of the students. We don’t make moral judgements we help children take advantage of their education because education equals opportunity,” she says.

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Seeking balance

Obesity is a world epidemic and in our little corner of the world we are not exempt from the battle with the bulge. Research by the University of Otago, Wellington faculty has revealed more than 200,000 (30 percent) of children today are either obese or overweight.

Perhaps of more concern, is the international long term studies which show 40 to 80 percent of children who are obese in adolescence, will remain so in adulthood.

Trouble is, our adult population is not leading by example. Instead, they are instilling poor eating habits in children from a young age and conditioning them to opt for poor eating choices; it’s a cyclic pattern and schools are on a mission to shape up the system.

On February 5, 2009, Education Minister Anne Tolley announced the removal of the National Administration Guidelines (NAG) clause that states “where food and beverages are sold on schools’ premises to make only healthy options available”.

After this announcement, the controversy that ensued was not dissimilar to when Labour implemented the legislation in June 2008. New Zealand Principals Federation president Judy Hanna spoke for the general consensus in the education sector when she condemned the original policy as regulation for the sake of regulation and “a slap in the face for all of our schools and their efforts so far…”.

However, Obesity Action Coalition director Leigh Sturgiss has labelled National’s removal of this clause as irresponsible.

“The healthy food options in schools initiative was introduced as one measure to help reverse these appalling obesity figures among our children.

“This [clause removal] is the equivalent of teachers promoting good reading and writing skills but having books in the school library full of spelling mistakes.”

Education within education

While the removal of this NAG clause has sparked debate among health activists, the education sector is still actively supporting healthy eating in schools in adherence to the remaining clause (ii), which requires schools to uphold their promotion of healthy eating.

One initiative educating children on the merits of a healthy diet is the Fresh n’ Fruity Get Growing Programme.

With $20,000 in cash prizes up for grabs, participating schools get a growing pack upon registration, which includes vouchers to buy strawberry plants from participating garden centres in New Zealand.

Pupils must then keep a diary to monitor the progress of their strawberry gardens, which are grown in recycled yoghurt pots before they are judged and prizes are awarded in late 2009.

Broadband Beach intermediate teacher Katrina Robinson enrolled her class in the challenge and believes as a society we can’t underestimate how important healthy food options are for children.

“I often notice after lunch kids are quite lethargic and a bit off the planet after a high sugar intake.

“We set boundaries at school but we also want to draw kids attention to healthier options and by teaching as opposed to telling them what’s healthy, it helps the kids to make good eating decisions themselves,” Robinson says.

The national ‘Just Water Week’ is another annual campaign advocating the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet. Run by Kidney Health New Zealand between March 9 – 15 2009, last year’s initiative was organised to coincide with World Kidney day on March 12.

Each year, participating schools are encouraged to promote water as the drink of choice for pupils during the week, educating them on the value of drinking water instead of juice or fizzy drink.

With approximately half the human body made up of water, it is imperative for kids to refuel with h20 instead of sugar, to replace water lost throughout the day.

Water is fuel for life and to counteract the increasing obesity statistics in New Zealand, it is a vital ingredient for a life of longevity.

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Nourishing our future

Our Kiwi children are the future; to help them realise their potential, it is the responsibility of adults to nurture their minds, bodies and souls.

Our hungry children and obesity statistics are morally and ethically devastating and although the suffering is preventable, a society where there are no victims of poverty, neglect or imbalance, even in a country like New Zealand, seems like idealism at best.

Therefore, schools are taking accountability for the livelihood and well-being of these children in the hope they can mitigate the destructive circumstances.

As a parent, teacher or member of society you can make a difference by educating yourself and supporting the promotion and practise of healthy eating and nourishment for children. Because knowledge is power and with understanding we can incite change.

Author: magazinestoday

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