For the past 5 years I’ve taught in private, public, and alternative school settings. The following is based on my experience at a public schools in low income areas in Florida.
#1 Less Meal Time (& Exercise Time) than Inmates is Normal.
Imagine you’re in 6th grade. You get no recess, because 12 year olds are apparently too old for that. You excitedly wait for one of the only breaks of the day, lunch. The bell rings and a 25 minute timer begins. You wait in a long line behind at least 100 other kids and shuffle in a quiet, straight line to the cafeteria. About 4 minutes later you arrive and have 21 minutes to eat and get back to class. Now you wait in other long lines inside the cafeteria. Lines at this school are especially long because it’s in a low income area and everyone gets free lunch. By the time you can finally sit down and eat, there are as little as 10-15 minutes left. You unwrap plastic packages, shovel down your food, and try to get a few words in with your friends, assuming it hasn’t been declared a silent lunch. Most teachers in the next class will assume you had time to use the bathroom during this time, so you raise your hand and wait for someone to give you permission if you’ve managed to finish eating. Lunch soon ends and you hurriedly line up and return to class.
When they get back to class the kids have a hard time sitting still, but who can blame them? Many kids labeled as “hyperactive” are given drugs like Aderall(amphetamine) or Riddalin(Methyl Phenamine) but maybe the real problem is that they are being deprived of their daily exercise time, which is necessary for optimal brain development. In Finland, kids get 15 minute outdoor breaks after every 45 minutes of instruction and they consistently score near the top of world rankings, whereas in the US, students’ performance is sinking. I was once dismissed from a long-term subbing job when I was new to teaching for giving 4th graders two days with recess instead of one. Amazingly this policy was being enforced countywide, even for 1st graders. Parents often wonder why kids get glued to screens at home and won’t go outside. Could it be that they are getting so little unstructured face to face social time and outdoor time that these things have become foreign to them?
# 2 Reducing, Reusing, & Recycling Aren’t Necessary
Even as the amount of veggies on kids’ plates increases in some schools, the amount of styrofoam and plastic wrap is increasing EXPONENTIALLY. Below are a few examples of what a typical school lunch looks like where I teach.
Every day on my way to work I drive past the mountains of trash piled up at the county dump and try not to feel depressed. I can emphasize conservation and love for the environment to the max, but when schools don’t prioritize it I’m fighting an uphill battle. To get a rough idea, I assigned my classes to calculate just how much non-renewable plastic was being tossed out. With at least 700 kids eating school lunch, the average day’s non-biodegradable waste looks something like this:
- 2 x 700 plastic food containers for side items like green beans or fruit
- 700 sets of plastic silverware wrapped in plastic.
- 700 of at least one of the following: an item in prepackaged plastic such as pre-packaged carrots, something in a plastic cup like applesauce, something in a styrafoam cup.
- Depending on the day and the students selection 700 Disposable styrofoam trays served on flat plastic reusable trays, large plastic salad style bowls and other miscellaneous items.
That’s roughly 4,900 throw away plastic pieces per day; multiplied by 180 school days, that is around 882,000 pieces added to the landfill per year. That’s not including breakfasts and afterschool snacks. Now multiply that by the few hundred other public in the schools in the county and it starts to get scary. The money saved on dishwashers at our schools isn’t really cost effective when considering the mountains of trash being created. On the rare occasions where compost is collected for the Agriculture department, a large number of kids throw their plastic ware in with the uneaten fruit. Part of it may come from laziness but as a teacher I know firsthand that much of this stems from a lack of knowledge about concepts like biodegradation and the fact that plastics can leech harmful chemicals into the soil.
#3 Cleanliness is not a Priority
Remember being reminded as a kid to wash your hands before meals? Well, tough for kids these days, there’s no time for that now. The robotic system of modern public schools doesn’t allow for that. Why? It takes time away from instruction, of course.
The appalling lack of cleanliness in school culture is even more apparent when you look at the floors after the kids leave the cafeteria. Trash is everywhere. They are also not making the connection that their sloppiness is making other people’s lives — low wage earning custodial staff — much more difficult and lousy. The time is not given for these things. They aren’t priorities, but what will the effects be when they grow up and don’t learn to pick their trash up off the street. How long will we listen to the lie that test scores are more important than basic responsibility and decency?
#4 To Be Targets of Hollywood Ad Campaigns
One of the shining gems in most cafeterias in America is the poster of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson holding up his milk, wearing a glue mustache on his face, muscles glistening from oil, protruding due to dehydration and eating only protein for the past 48 hours before the photo shoot. On the opposite wall is another milk ad with a buff guy in tights- an NFL star to be more precise.
What’s really happening here with these ads directed at kids? In a cafeteria only serving 3 flavors of milk they are all being taught this is a great option. If they don’t want the milk, they can raise their hands or a chance to drink fluoridated, chlorinated tap water from the water fountain. Kids are taught that healthy bones require drinking secretions from cows who are force-fed corn and pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics to keep them alive and productive in conditions so appalling most of my students wouldn’t believe it. Most kids grow up having no clue that many vegetables and nuts have loads more bioavailable calcium and protein than milk.
So who’s benefitting here? The milk industry, and the entertainment industry. It’s not suprising that those two things are so popular in the USA when kids see them advertised every day at school. So many of them dream of becoming professional athletes and movie stars, and then face the harsh reality after it’s too late that it won’t happen after having passed up on the chance to pursue a career they would love. Why aren’t there ads up in my school cafeterias glorifying inventors, civil rights leaders and other visionaries? It’s bad enough that the TV promotes the worship of rich, famous people who often do nothing for humanity, but the fact that it’s happening in schools is inexcusable.
#5 Convenience Trumps Commitment
The school system seems to be convinced that mass produced industrial food is the only way to support a large population, that cutting lunch and recess time for more class time is the best way to increase student learning gains. But the hidden costs to the environment, our health, and society are tremendous. Dishes require more time to wash, but replacing them with throwaways places the burden on the next generation. These kids will inherit these environmental problems, and we can only hope that they will reject the convenience-at-all-costs mentality they are being taught in our schools. It’s sad to see so many kids struggling with diseases like type-2 diabetes that can be treated with healthy diet and exercise choices, but that requires planning and commitment, and these things are seldom reinforced in schools. There are pills to deal with the symptoms, but the underlying problems remain.
So Now What?
Near the end of this past school year, after we had completed the normal curriculum, I decided I owed it to my student’s to spend some time focusing on ecology. The kids learned about things like: how certain plastics can effect their hormones, what’s causing the great Pacific garbage patch, and even how kids in other countries sometimes end up sorting their garbage in giant sweatshops. When they realized the devastating effects plastics were having, such as the million plus marine bird deaths a year, and the over 100,000 marine mammal deaths per year from consuming plastic, many were outraged. Some of the kids felt we could do nothing, the problem is too big and we aren’t given biodegradable options at school lunch, but most felt inspired enough to write letters to the school board and the state, asking for the single use plastic problem to be addressed.
The problem is big, but it can be changed if we give it the attention it deserves. It’s time we start talking openly to kids about the situation, so that they understand what’s at stake and can be part of the change. Where the school system is failing, we can still take steps at home to promote a culture of mindfulness during mealtime. If we don’t want the cycle to continue damaging society and the planet, it’s time we let other parents, our school administrators, the school board, and the press know what’s going on, because continuing the current trajectory is clearly not an option.
If this message resonated with you, leave a comment below and let’s discuss ways in which we can improve this situation. Don’t forget to leave some claps as well so this can reach more people.
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