Heidi Leonhard has been a domestic science teacher and nutrition expert for many years. She teaches sustainable cooking –also, for example, for former participants in the voluntary services of the Friends of Waldorf Education. She organizes the annual anthroposophical nutrition and domestic science conference of the German Association of Waldorf Schools. She spoke to the Friends of Waldorf Education about the special role for school meals today. The focus was not only on European schools, but also on schools worldwide.
The concept of school meals is not that old. Not so long ago, it was more common for children to eat at home after school. Today we have a different reality.
School lunch in West Germany is a relatively new concept and in some cases still under development. But in East Germany, in the former GDR, as well as in countries such as England, France, Israel, the USA, and many others, lunch has been an established part of school for a very long time.
What are the advantages of eating with the family?
From a cultural-anthropological point of view we know that the family dining table has always been the central place for learning and practicing elementary social behaviors, such as the art of entertainment and restraint. Here we practice how to create a pleasant atmosphere, through our behavior, our table manners, aesthetically, and through the food and the way it is presented. Even regularly washing our hands before preparing or eating food is of educational importance.
What are the advantages of eating at school over eating with the family?
Today, family lunches are a reality in fewer and fewer countries or families. In most cases, both parents work, and cooking a full meal, which is then eaten together at the table, does not actually take place in many families anymore. This makes school the place where not only a good wholesome meal is offered, but where the children also practice cultural techniques and social skills. Looking at the situation worldwide, there are even cases where school meals can be the most important reliable meal for the children.
Can good food support good learning?
Absolutely! A good diet supports concentration, the ability to learn, and the memorization of what has been learned. It also has an influence on behavior. While malnutrition is usually a problem of so-called crisis countries, nutritional deficiencies are also common in our country. Children who are suffering from a nutritional deficiency have been shown to be more restless and less able to concentrate.
How important is the direct connection between the kitchen team and the students?
Very important. I can have a much closer connection to something I know, rather than to something "foreign". In schools where the children and adolescents have tasks or lessons in the school kitchen or canteen, they seem to appreciate the kitchen and the food much more. But also the status the parents and teachers afford to the kitchen and its staff and to what extent they support the meals at school and the cooking team, all this increases the weight of the school kitchen.
Which criteria should food at a Waldorf school meet?
A balanced, wholesome, predominantly vegetarian diet of the highest possible quality that can be obtained, i.e., Demeter or organic, traded as regionally, seasonally, and fairly as possible - all of this also implies sustainability! Of course, it would also be good if the kitchen staff had a basis in anthroposophical nutrition, because the whole human being should be taken into account. It is about forming forces at all levels of the threefold human being. The food also has the purpose of offering the children a good traditional meal and of teaching children and adolescents to look beyond their own horizons.
How can these criteria be met?
School meals have to be important. At first the school has to make the conscious decision that high-quality food for the children and adolescents is part of the school's principles. Then it needs to adopt the mindset that food costs money hence it is of value. The school kitchen cannot be a for-profit business - it is an expression of the school community's will – and probably, will have to receive additional financial support just like other important elements of the school, such as needlework, computer, and handicraft lessons, or public relations work.
Can a school garden help reduce costs?
A school garden is above all pedagogically very important. In addition to the pedagogical reasons, growing vegetables, herbs, and fruit for the kitchen, keeping bees and chickens or the like can help save money. But it is also important to involve local small farmers and producers. This supports the immediate economy and strengthens connectivity and relationships with the surrounding area. This is particularly true in poorer countries and in places that still have a strong agricultural influence.
Which foods are particularly important when the overall supply situation is poor, such as in countries where parents can hardly feed their children?
First and foremost, the children need to be full, and for that they first need protein and a basis containing carbohydrates. That means pulses (like beans and lentils) and nuts as well as, for example, millet, corn, rice, and sweet potatoes, plantains, or cassava. Depending on how fish and meat are rooted in the respective culinary culture, the meals can occasionally be upgraded by, for example, as part of a banquet or integrated into the daily diet in little quantities. The children also need good fat - it is important to use local fats of high quality here, too - for example coconut oil. They get vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables: a school garden can play a central role here. It is also very important to have enough clean water to make tea. For example with herbs from the garden. They certainly do not need any processed products or convenience food. Also no sweet drinks - even if this may be a big change. Development, health, behavior, and concentration skills are better without degraded food products and sugars.