Fatty but filling food the enemy

2011-11-12 18:43

South Africa’s children are growing fat and unfit. Some schools lack the resources to offer learners regular sport and recreation.

Others struggle to establish a culture of good eating habits in the face of poverty, malnutrition and the temptations of tuck shops selling cheap junk food to hungry learners who want a sugar rush from the nearest fatcake or fizzy drink at break time.

Rich or poor, kids will be kids.

But in the face of such challenges, we found a number of schools across South Africa that are doing their best to turn the tables.

We met teachers who care deeply about the health and development of the children in their charge.

We learned more about the education department’s feeding schemes that provide a hot, nutritious meal each day to children who would otherwise go hungry.

We spoke to sports teachers, principals, tuckshop moms, school nutritionists and dozens of children themselves to hear their views on health, diet and exercise.

Without exception, the educators we spoke to agreed: children who have access to nutritious food and plenty of exercise are healthier, happier and wide awake in the classroom.

These are their stories.

The feeding scheme at Sinethemba Senior Seconday – sponsored by the education department – was established in 2007 to ensure that all learners get at least one square meal a day.

Sinethemba is in Philippi on the outskirts of Cape Town. Philippi is a poor neighbourhood; houses are makeshift, most of the population is unemployed and few children can afford the luxury of lunch money or home-packed lunchboxes.

When the feeding scheme was launched in 2007, learners were screened to see if they qualified. But now the scheme provides a hot meal for all of the school’s 1 200 learners.

“Twice a week we provide fruit and veggies,” says Nontuthuzelo Mncinziba, one of the people who run the feeding scheme. Also on the weekly menu are soups, pap and meat and a selection of healthy stews.

But Nelson Poopedi, Sinethemba’s principal, says the junk food attractions of the “moms” who set up shop along the school fence remain a challenge.

“The healthy food offered at the tuck shop is much more expensive,” admits Poopedi, “so the learners go and buy the cheapest food they can find from the moms.”

While the school tuck shop sells all kinds of fruit – bananas, apples and oranges at R1 each, the sandwiches cost up to R10.

The informal vendors sell amagwinya (vetkoek) with liver, and burgers and viennas with fried chips for about R7.

Unhealthy and fatty – but filling, as principal Poopedi agrees.

“We can’t tell the children what to bring for lunch and what to buy with their money, but we can advise them on healthy eating lifestyles,” he says.

Part of the Life Orientation class involves discussions and assignments for learners to research what’s healthy and what isn’t, in an attempt to instill good eating habits for the future.

Learner Abongile Phankisa says he eats from the tuck shop, the feeding scheme and sometimes brings money to buy from the moms at the fence.

He admits that healthy eating is not a top priority for him.

“I eat so my stomach can be full.”

But perhaps principal Poopedi’s influence, coupled with the school feeding scheme, is starting to pay off.
Nontuthuzela Gabha (51), who who has been selling vetkoek and cool drinks at the school fence for almost 10 years says she’s noticed a dip in her business recently.

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