How Covid could help us to tackle child obesity

Covid creates the conditions for councils to restrict students' access to fast food, says teacher Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns

Child obesity: Could Covid lead to healthier eating in schools?

Over the past few months, I’ve often had the impression that the country is split into two halves: the first is out delivering food to the others sitting expectantly at home waiting for their takeaway pizza, kebab or lamb dopiaza. Then when the shifts change, the roles switch: almost every cyclist I see has one of those gravity-defying soft boxes on their backs. shuttling back and forth between the fast-food shops and hungry gourmands.

Yet, somewhat counterintuitively, this most recent lockdown has created the optimum time to shift school pupils out of their fast-food habit towards eating something healthier.

The 2021 school hiatus could be a springboard to help create a lunchtime cold turkey (and I don’t mean on a sandwich although that would be a healthier option) to tackle our status as one of the fattest countries in Europe. The most recent national figures show that around one in four Scottish children aged 2 to 15 is at risk of being overweight or obese. And an overweight child, of course, is more likely to be an overweight adult, increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis.

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Despite all of the educational initiatives, levels of obesity in young Scots have remained fairly constant since current forms of measurement started around 20 years ago. The truth is, no matter how many PSE (personal and social education) lessons are taught showing pupils what a healthy plate looks like, the draw of the “munchie box” on special offer from one of the fast-food emporiums a short walk away from their school is stronger than the fear of ill-health in the far distant future.

Child obesity: Locking the school gates at lunchtime

So, at a time when pandemic rules and guidelines have restricted where we can go anyway, education authorities could either start locking school gates at lunchtime to stop pupils leaving the premises to eat out or create takeaway exclusion zones around schools where no fast-food premises can open at lunchtimes within a one-mile radius of a school.

While this might seem draconian, it is not nearly as drastic as an alternative approach taken by one county council in England recently, where two “severely overweight” children were taken into foster care recently, from what was reported as a caring family, after other interventions such as providing Fitbits and gym membership didn’t reduce the children’s weight.

In Japan, school lunches were subsidised by the government after the Second World War to tackle malnutrition in the country. Today, the students in schools in many parts of France, where the childhood obesity rate is far lower than in Scotland, do not leave the grounds during lunchtime and are offered a four-course lunch in their dining halls. The idea of a school lunch menu being posted online so that families can plan a different evening meal, as happens in France, may seem anathema in Scotland where food culture is not such an intrinsic part of life, but lockdown could be a catalyst to change.

Drastic times call for drastic measures – and could also lead to some silver linings around the huge Covid cloud. Upsetting fast-food vendors would seem a worthwhile price to pay if it helps to tackle our longstanding problem with obesity.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher in Scotland

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