Good food takes time

Lunchtime offered a number of delicious options during my schooldays in Glasgow's East End. I could choose between a bridie heavy with grease, a burger from an unidentifiable meat source or the carbohydrate classic - a roll and chips. I never considered that these could be connected to my afternoon sluggishness, poor skin and weight issues.

It seems incredible that a quarter of a century later, despite government initiatives such as Hungry for Success, most teenagers in my home city are still making the same poor choices.

A new report by researchers from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the University of St Andrews and NHS Health Scotland reveals that young Glaswegians are far more likely to buy lunch outside of school than their peers in the rest of Scotland. Almost six in 10 Glaswegians forgo school dinners to frequent kebab shops and fast food outlets.

These pupils, in S2 and S4, already consume fewer portions of fruit and vegetables than young people elsewhere and are more likely to eat crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks.

You can't really blame the pupils. Takeaway food is readily available, cheap and much faster than joining a long queue in the canteen - which is crucial if you have only 45 minutes between lessons to eat, relax and have a bit of fun.

And let's face it: those who opt for a kebab - a toxic foodstuff if ever there was one - are not exactly giving a thumbs-up to the quality of school meals.

It's also difficult for parents to police. How can you control what your children eat when you're not there? Demand receipts?

The knee-jerk response would be to lock the school gates and force pupils either to have a school meal or to bring a packed lunch.

But this would create a whole range of new problems. Who is going to volunteer to inspect lunch boxes for contraband food? School kitchens would also have to offer a wider range of healthy options if they had a captive audience. If you want a baked potato where I work, you have to start running as soon as you hear the bell for lunch. And if my own children want to have a vegetarian lunch guaranteed at their primary school, we have to phone the day before.

Rather than locking pupils in, we need to change attitudes towards food. That we call our lunch halls "fuel zones" says it all. The message is that eating is not about pleasure but filling up your engine as quickly as possible.

One simple option would be to extend the school day to allow for a more leisurely lunch that actually refreshes pupils and staff for the afternoon. Perhaps we would begin to see an attitudinal shift where lunchtime would have value in itself - and not simply be a break from the important stuff.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow

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