The Environment: my new favourite big word when picking up my son from school

“Wheat and Steak” (1981) from the exhibition MIRALDA MADEINUSA produced by MACBA Barcelona

Have you ever noticed how, in the surroundings of schools, adults always seem much more well behaved and caring than in any other public space? How people hold the door open for you with a smile? We parents have put our trust in the school to help us raise accomplished human beings, and there is a common acceptance that, if nowhere else, this is the place to act responsibly.

In this regard, schools offer the perfect setting for seeding societal transformation, and whoever feels change is needed now should make the best of this civilised space.

Here’s how I decided to give it a try: after biting my lip in self-censorship since my son joined school last September, it was time to express my uneasiness over the food served at the canteen. From meat served every day, to non-seasonal or processed food, I felt that the institution could care a bit more about our childrens’ and planet’s health, but I wanted to be a bit tactful about how to deliver my long list of complaints. The school’s annual theme, chosen by the school’s management served as a prefect pretext: the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a collection of 17 goals aimed at  promoting prosperity while protecting the planet.

All UN member states have agreed to take action on ending poverty, hunger, offering decent work, clean water and promoting responsible production and consumption by 2030.

Before sending the letter to the school director, I shared it with other parents from my son’s class. Here is an extract :

It is a known fact that food systems and consumers choices have a great impact on issues such as peace, health, biodiversity and climate. While the current globalised agribusiness generates loss in soil quality, loss in biodiversity, water contamination, intensive use of petroleum by-products etc…, food produced by small-scale farmers and sold on local markets help people to get out of malnutrition and poverty. It also contributes to better health, stronger communities and a better environment. 
Our choices when buying food are therefore crucial in achieving the 17 sustainable developments goals (SDGs). It seems that unfortunately schools haven’t evolved much when it comes to embedding new knowledge into food sourcing for canteens, and I actually feel (the school) is falling short on the following points:

- Meat almost every day: Meat and dairy production contributes to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO), which is more than the transportation sector! Recent scientific studies (The Lancet) urge reducing by 40% our consumption of meat and diary, and favouring a more plant-based diet if we want to keep the climate below a 1.5 degree increase, as the ultimate limit for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, as recognised by scientists and UN climate bodies.

- On the seasonal aspect: The January menu has tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes, a group of vegetables which season is summer. At this period of the year, these products are grown in greenhouses and come usually from El Elejido (Spain), also known as “the sea of plastic” for the enormous expanse of poly-plastic tunnels covering the area, and where workers, mainly African migrants, are working and living in slave-like conditions.

- Maize on the menu, on this point more transparency is required. 95% of Transgenic (GMO) maize produced in the EU comes from Catalonia, Aragon and some parts of Portugal. The cohabitation between conventional varieties and transgenic ones is almost impossible. The transgenic ones ending contaminating the other. How can we be sure that our kids are not eating transgenic products, when scientific consensus has not been reached on their safety for human health?

- Salmon and farmed fish, sometimes present on the menu, is resource intensive (it takes 5Kg of fish meal – itself  made from wild fish - to produce 1Kg of farmed salmon). Concentration in fish farms causes some problems, including: water pollution (too many nutrients and nitrogen) as well as diseases (parasites, viruses, and bacteria) that require use of antibiotics which will inevitably end up in human bodies. While Omega 3 is an essential nutrient, the benefits of consuming farmed salmon are outweigh by the negative environmental and health consequences of such a production method.

- Sugar and junk food: I hear some parents questioning the need to serve sweetened yogurts at school and whether more generally the school should refrain giving kids products containing added sugars. It’s true that sugar is more and more present in our food and is linked to a series of diseases such as obesity (Spain has among the highest rates of child obesity within the EU) and diabetes. I join their concern and think we all need to re-educate our food habits in relation to sugar. On a more personal note, I refuse my son to eat potentially dangerous substances such as the E171, prohibited in several EU countries. Birthdays are a fantastic occasion for kids to celebrate and connect. Too often though, cakes brought on this occasion have a layer of “Lacasitos” which contain the infamous E171 (also known as Titanium dioxide). I found out accidentally that my son was eating these. I would greatly appreciate if the school could stop “facilitating” my son’s access to these products, and give some more guidance to families when it comes to birthday celebrations.

Food is an endless and fundamental education vector. With this year SDG theme, (the school) has a fantastic opportunity for to further and deepen its progressive educational approach. Maybe even some older students could be taught how to read labels and could investigate food origin for the rest of the school? Some associations, such as “Del Campo al Cole”, “Menjadors Ecologics”, “Ecomenja” are very well versed on these topics and they are doing an amazing job in transforming the world via our canteens. I would be more than happy to connect you with them if you also think food is an important part of our children's education.

Some parents reacted to my letter with a irrevocable “our family is not vegan” and switched off.

Be warned, suggesting the introduction of just two plant-based meals a week can unleash very dramatic reactions.

However,  others were keen to discuss the issue, admitting they had been previously unaware of the facts I had exposed in my letter. But to my surprise, I found some allies, parents who felt that the letter reflected their own concerns and who wanted to co-sign it. That’s how we opened a dialogue about transformation of the food culture at school.

The school was amazingly responsive and some changes have already been implemented – there is now a ban on nasty E-number sweets;  while kids continue celebrating birthdays at school, colourful candy is no longer invited to the party. More importantly, there now an ongoing discussion between the director and the canteen service on how to modify the school menu towards a more sustainable one. I guess that’s how change begins.

Despite having been involved in confrontational environmental campaigns during my career, I had to think twice before exposing my convictions in social situations, especially if it might cause prejudice towards my child. This is the wrong attitude. Nothing could harm my child more than inaction on climate change, air pollution or self-imposed censorship. The students of the Fridays for Future who have been demonstrating in more than 100 countries over governments’ inaction on climate change have it clear: studies and good education they are currently receiving, might become irrelevant on a uninhabitable planet.

According to the world’s leading climate scientists, we need to act now, so that in 12 years the current trends pointing at a catastrophic climate scenario can be avoided. We, as parents also need to generally reconsider what is most important for our child. Next time you talk to a fellow parent, don’t be afraid to bring up The Environment, this big word that can turn some people off but might bring many more together.

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