Archive for May, 2012

A Health Problem in North African Schools and Society?

May 16, 2012
Typical American school restroom for primary-school girls

Typical American school restroom for primary-school girls

As an American teacher living in North Africa, I was complaining to a public-school teacher friend in the same country about my perception of lack of adequate toilet facilities for girls in the international school where I taught previously.

I said that we only had had only four girls’ toilet stalls for four classes of girls.  Each elementary-school class had about 30 children, and about half of those were girls, so we had four toilets for about 60 girls.

The problem was that for several months, two of those toilets WEREN’T WORKING.  For more than two months, ONLY ONE TOILET WAS WORKING.  (For reference, current American law requires that for students over five years old, one toilet needs to be provided for every 20 pupils.)

My friend began to laugh, and told me that in his small-town school of 1600 students (approximately 1,000 boys and 600 girls), there were only three toilets for girls, and three toilets for boys!

No wonder my own school didn’t view getting the toilets repaired quickly as a problem in need of urgent remedy!

Modern school bathrooms in the United Kingdom (England)

Lurking in the background is a behavior assumption which is still unclear to me.  I have been told by some in North Africa that it’s “not polite” to use the restroom (toilet) anywhere other than one’s own home (or relatives’ home).  Yet when I asked other people, they haven’t heard of any such “rule.”

This is the type of toilet found in most schools (public and private), but as you can imagine, they are not nearly this clean.

Many public toilet facilities are unclean, but the cleanliness issue is not the subject of this post.  The AVAILABILITY of toilets, and whether or not it is socially acceptable to use them, is the topic.

When I go out with my North African husband, and we are away from home for several hours, I think it’s normal to need to find a restroom.  But my husband gets very upset and complains that “other people don’t need to use the bathroom” and that I “must be drinking too much water” or that it’s “embarrassing” for HIM if I need to find a restroom!  I wondered if this is normal, or just my husband?

When I mentioned to a North African woman friend that my husband didn’t want to take me to a musical event in the evening which he goes to regularly, and I mentioned that the reason he gave was that I said I would certainly need a bathroom during the course of the evening (8-10-hour event), she immediately agreed, “Oh, yes, that would be a big problem!”

The type of evening musical event which my husband and friend indicated would be “a problem” to take me to (if I should need a bathroom).

Doctors in North Africa have told me often over the years that people here don’t drink enough water.  On the other hand, both men and women over the years have told me, “Yes, it’s true all the doctors say to drink more water, but I don’t do it because then I would need to go to the bathroom!”

At this large music festival in Morocco, I wonder what all these people are doing about finding a restroom–are they all “waiting all day, until they get home?”

My North African husband drinks very little water (he tells me he drinks about half a glass once a week).  He does drink Coke, juices, coffee, and milk, but not much (by the standard of drinking one-and-a-half liters of liquid a day–and doctors recommend at least a liter of that be water, or four glasses a day–in America, we are told to drink eight glasses of water a day).

All of the above is similar to a problem I once experienced with a Greek lady in America, where my best friend was Greek.  My friend’s grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and I offered to take the grandmother out for an afternoon in order to give his mother a break from her care-taking duties.  During the afternoon we went to a movie, and had been gone from home for about three hours.  In the middle of the movie, the grandmother got up and walked out.  I assumed she must need the restroom (she was losing her ability to communicate in English), so I took her there.  But she did NOT need it.

Later, when we got home, my friend’s mother said that in her entire life, she had NEVER seen her mother use a public restroom, that in fact, her mother (who came from Greece at the age of 18) could “hold it all day.”  Being born in America herself, she said she could not figure out how her mother could do that.  (Like North Africans, she probably was purposely not drinking any water.)

Women’s public restroom in American movie theater

So now that I live in North Africa, I wonder if this could be a Mediterranean-wide idea.  Is it that WOMEN shouldn’t use a restroom in a public place, or is it that NO ONE should use a restroom in a public place?  Is this why schools seem to think many restroom stalls aren’t necessary for children?

In most schools here, students go to school for four hours, then go home for lunch, and then come back for an additional four hours.  However, at the schools in the countryside, students are often walking 6-7 kilometers to school (4 miles) each direction, and certainly would not be walking “home” for lunch.  What are they supposed to do?

At our international school we kept foreign hours from 8:30 am – 3:30 pm, but it was still a half-hour drive for most people to-and-from school.  Believe me, it took a lot of time (when we should have been teaching) to get all the girls through the restroom when there was only one working toilet.

I hope I will have some feedback on this issue from men and women in North Africa and the Mediterranean areas, as well as from anyone experiencing any similar problems in their schools or otherwise!

–Lynne Diligent

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Part II: The Shocking Truth about Children’s Eating in England and America

May 5, 2012

Children are picky eaters–it’s normal.  In the past, children would have eaten junk food if it were available–but it just wasn’t widely available.  Fast food restaurants are not to blame.  Society, which expects parents to work 60-hour weeks, is to blame.

In American society, where we have no maids or help at home, nor extended families to help out, fast food and pre-prepared food (which can just be reheated, or served as is from the store container) is the solution to a time-crunch problem (see Part I of of this series). What’s different today, from in the past, is that with the proliferation of junk food everywhere, parents at home and nutritionists at school have basically given up trying to force children to eat healthy food.  Gone are the rules of sitting at the table until vegetables are eaten, or (proper portion sized) plates are cleaned.

Package of chicken nuggets, which can just be opened and reheated. Chicken nuggets aren’t even real pieces of chicken, which is why children complain if parents try to make them at home using real chicken. (In fact, as Jamie Oliver demonstrated to children, they are made out of pureed chicken scraps (mostly skin, fat, and a tiny bit of meat) left over on the carcass after all the meat has been cut off. They are an invention of the food processing industry to see how much money can be salvaged from the last bit of waste.

Parents no longer have the time or energy to make or enforce such rules, much less to cook fresh vegetables from scratch.  But sadly, most of these children are not even being served the delicious frozen vegetable combinations that children of the 60s and 70s grew up with.

It seems that family meals are now a thing of the past in the majority of households.  With everyone “grabbing what they can on the run,” or “eating whenever they feel like it on different schedules,” as well as everyone working on their own computers in different rooms, family mealtime doesn’t even exist in many homes any more.

British Chef Jamie Oliver, known for making fresh produce accessible to all.

When I saw Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners, which showed children in England who didn’t know the names of common vegetables (such as potato and tomato) I just couldn’t believe it.  But to my surprise, in his next program, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Jamie came to America and showed us American children who did not know the same common vegetables!  But all of these children knew what French Fries and ketchup were–they just didn’t know anything about potatoes and tomatoes.

English Chef Jamie Oliver, who emphasizes fresh produce and its health benefits, showed us both British and American school children who did not know what tomatoes and potatoes were.

In America, in the 1960s and early 70s, we still had healthy, well-balanced lunches at school.  These were all planned on a monthly basis, and published in advance so everyone could decide whether to eat the hot lunch, or bring a lunch from home.

Let’s take a look at those lunches.  All included a protein, a green vegetable, sometimes a yellow vegetable, a fruit, a roll (bread), and a dessert.  The green vegetables were sometimes cooked spinach, cooked green beans, cooked peas, or something similar.  The typical fruit was a few pieces of canned apricot, canned peach, or canned applesauce.  Sometimes the desserts were two cookies, and a brownie.  Students went through one cafeteria line, and everyone was served the same healthy lunch.  Pizza might be served once a month, and hot dogs might be served once a month.  Those were very popular days.   Macaroni and cheese might be served twice a month, and red spaghetti with meatballs might be served twice a month with a small bit a fresh salad.  The only drink given was a small carton of milk, and once a week, students were given the choice to have chocolate milk.

tacos for school lunches

While this is a modern lunch tray in a school which obviously cares, I’m certain that the majority of kids drink the chocolate milk and eat the taco, while throwing away the rest. This was true in the 60s and 70s, and it is why so many schools have done away with trying to serve things that kids won’t eat (vegetables and fruits).

So what actually happened to these lunches?  Did students eat these healthy lunches?  Not generally.  The meat or chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy,were generally eaten.  A few kids ate the canned fruit, but more threw it out.  Hardly anyone touched the green vegetables because canned green vegetables generally do not taste good, are overcooked, and often stringy, and canned spinach is pretty disgusting.  some kids ate the fresh salad, but more did not.  So roughly 50 percent of the food was thrown away into the bins every day.  Parents and school districts lamented all the wasted food, as well as the cost of all of it.

Were we taught about nutrition in those days at school, and at home?  Of course we were.  Most mothers were cooking healthy, balanced meals and teaching their children about the four food groups, as well as pointing out those groups on the plate when they were served.  Most people were eating properly-sized servings at home and remained at a healthy weight.

The four food groups, as taught in the 1960s and 1970s.

Families went to a nice restaurant about once or twice a month, and to inexpensive or fast-food restaurants no more than twice a month.  No one bought pre-prepared food at supermarkets, in fact, supermarkets did not yet sell that.  Many mothers did use frozen vegetables, which were of higher eating quality than canned vegetables.  But more people ate canned vegetables because they were cheaper.

The generation before that, most people were still canning vegetables at home in winter, and fresh produce in summer.   I still remember my mother talking about growing up in Colorado during the 1930s, where getting ONE orange in the Christmas stocking was considered a worthy gift from Santa Claus.  Fresh fruit was still expensive and rare, especially during winter.  By the 60s and 70s, few people were still doing that.  Those who could afford it began using high-quality frozen foods to reduce food preparation time, and those who could not afford it ate canned vegetables.   Fresh foods were available, but they were not in as wide variety as they are today, and they were always expensive.

Did all of this make us eat our vegetables at school, or even like them?  Of course not.  Because of the disgusting quality of the canned green vegetables at school, many people got turned off green vegetables for life.

Cooked spinach, served directly out of a can on a lunch tray is disgusting to most people, particularly children.

This is why you still find many men in their 50s and older who still won’t eat their vegetables!  (Women eat more vegetables because they are still more concerned with meal planning and the health of their families.)

When I was four, I was a very picky eater and refused even to eat things like steak.   Only by the time I was in high school did I  come to appreciate the good-quality foods my parents forced me to eat at home.  In those days, the concept of “children’s foods” and “adult foods” did not exist.  Children were served, and expected to eat, the same foods as adults.  Many children of today never learn to appreciate these good, fresh foods.

Most children are picky eaters, and if left to their own devices, will always choose a junk-food diet.  The difference is that when that junk food is not available anywhere, most children do eventually learn to appreciate healthy foods.  The problem with many of today’s children, as exemplified in the television program Jamie’s School Dinners, which can be seen HERE, is that with today’s proliferation of junk food, adults have given up and started serving children the junk food they crave–not as an occasional treat, but as their regular fare.

Unhealthy lunch tray that many kids crave.

Typical school diets in England of pizza and chips (French Fries), according to a nutritionist who analyzed the meals, lack even minimal vitamin C and iron; these diets also promote heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” she says.  All the problems being treated in the National Health Service come back to what we are feeding our children.”   This means that they will most likely never learn to appreciate good food, and wind up with poor health in middle age, as a result.

This is happening in America, this is happening in England, this is happening in the third world.  It is even happening where I live now, in North Africa.   In North Africa, in the upper-middle-class school where I taught, where students bring lunches from home, parents often send healthy lunches, including salads with many fresh vegetables and even three or four pieces of fresh fruit.  However, many other parents send white bread and french fries, sometimes with cooked ground beef, a whole sack or can of potato chips (crisps), sugary drinks, and a whole sack of cookies.  Most of the kids who eat like the latter are overweight, and of course share their junk food with their friends.  So many of the kids bringing healthy lunches don’t eat their healthy food (a few do) and instead eat the junk food their friends bring.  Before 1999, this junk food wasn’t even available, but with the first supermarkets opening, a much wider variety of processed products became widely available.  Now that many more women are being educated and working outside the home, they no longer have time to make the home-cooked meals typical of North African cuisine, especially in the larger cities.

So what is to be done?  If families care for the health of their children, they should make an effort to prepare home-cooked meals at least a few times a week.  Most importantly, YOUNG children (starting at age two or three) need to be INVOLVED in the food preparation.

Teach children how to help prepare vegetables while they are still young enough to be interested.

Yes, it’s trouble for the adults, but this is the age (before 7) when they are interested and want to listen to their parents’ ideas.  By age 8-9 it’s the very last chance.  By age 10-11, peer pressure has completely taken over.  It’s too late.  They will only be interested in assisting you to make their favorite junk-food dishes.  At preschool ages, they love learning about fruits and vegetables, and different ways to prepare them.  Make the most of this chance if you have young children.  If you give them an appreciation for good food when they are young, even if they later go heavily into junk food, they will come back to an appreciation of good food in their 20s, as they have money to start enjoying nice restaurants, and as they start their own families and think about the health of their own children.

–Lynne Diligent

Part I:  Devaluation of Support Roles at Home is Driving the Increase in Junk Food Consumption